Director: Jeff Orlowski
Streaming Platform: Netflix
If, like me, you have swiped down to refresh your Instagram or Twitter feed, and seeing something uninteresting, swiped down again, refreshing it, and finding that uninteresting, swiped down again, you’ll be in for a huh-moment. Mid-way through The Social Dilemma Tristan Harris calls that behaviour akin to a person using a slot machine at a Vegas gambling den. We are addicts, thumbing through home pages- that’s an almost indefensible fact. But that we have always thought of this addiction as benign, or unyielding to bigger problems, is where we are wrong. At another point in the documentary, when asked where this addiction-attention economy will lead us, the former director of monetization of Facebook says flat-faced, “Civil war.”
The documentary, one-and-a-half hours long, (though it definitely felt longer) tries to take the commonly digested idea that social media is harmful and brings some context and controversy to it, by interviewing people who have worked in these companies- Facebook (including the person who co-invented the Like Button), Twitter, Google Drive, Pinterest, YouTube, and Firefox. They help contextualize.
First, a former employee at Firefox and Mozilla Labs clarifies that with social media, the customer is not us, but the advertisers- we are the product they are selling, not the audience they are selling to. Then, the documentary hones in on this- saying that it is not just us that they are selling, but a future-us, who can be changed, slowly by nudging, and directing us into information wormholes that radicalize us. (If you haven’t, you must check out the investigation on how YouTube’s algorithm can easily direct a person towards alt-right radical videos one at a time- that the YouTube suggested videos are not ones that are similar to, but ones that deepen existing biases. The Pizzagate issue, and the Flat Earther community is brought up in this documentary.)
The documentary juxtaposes these interviews with footage of a film about a teenage social media addict who gets radicalized. This is a nice touch to keep the goings well-oiled, but its simplistic, almost caricaturish take on social media (there are three men behind sitting and calculating which post should go to optimize the teenager’s attention) might not have the intended impact. It’s entertaining and didactic, but not effective, because it doesn’t tell us more than we already, probably, know.
What it also did, very cleverly, is take the addiction issue, and change course to its political implications, side-stepping the fact that the Netflix’s CEO Reed Hastings has often mentioned, “Sleep Is Our Competition”. If addiction is truly a gateway, what can Netflix do attenuate that?
The same can be said of the documentary- how Facebook fuelled tensions in Myanmar against the Muslim minority Rohingya (though in the documentary the link seems rather simplistic, determinstic), and how it makes possible foreign interference in domestic elections. Recently a Wall Street Journal article reported how Facebook India’s complicity overlooked incendiary, violent posts from members of the ruling BJP and the rightwing, for fear of affecting business prospects. We know all of this, or at least a majority do since these conversations have been in the mainstream for a while. What more can be said about it?
This documentary barely goes beyond this, creating frameworks to foster fear, and then give a thin slice of optimistic light. Capitalism is mentioned peripherally, but the fact that these systems exist is because a profit-mongering system that exists, and runs on unimpeded. How does one have an ethical social media platform that also turns over money? This is the question I wanted answered, but this is dealt with in vague platitudes.
What it also did, very cleverly, is take the addiction issue, and change course to its political implications, side-stepping the fact that the Netflix’s CEO Reed Hastings has often mentioned, “Sleep Is Our Competition”. If addiction is truly a gateway, what can Netflix do to attenuate that? One that prevents binge-watching? But won’t that be against their profit interests? Or is addiction an issue only if it leads to violence and civil war? How does one settle this see-saw? It is at this point that I figured out that this documentary was meant merely to ask questions, and not answer them. While having documentaries ask pertinent questions is certainly not a bad thing, what does one do with questions that have already been asked and remain unanswered?