Putting the Phone Down to Plug Back In

“The Social Dilemma” and the horrors of their own creation



Ben glued to his phone on social media.

A bright light suddenly fills the room as a notification buzzes from the phone that reads, “Have you seen The Social Dilemma?” Sat front and center of the Netflix recommended is the 2020 American docudrama film The Social Dilemma directed by Jeff Orlowski. This documentary-drama hybrid explores the rise of social media and the damage it has caused by exploiting its users for financial gain. The film features interviews from Silicon Valley’s Tech-Bros, who gave their first-hand experiences in designing the addictive data mining features of popular social media sites. These interviews are then cut together with a story of a media dependent family and their direct encounters with media manipulation. 

The Social Dilemma began with a run of the mill script discussing how social media can be damaging to mental health and self-image. While that is an important aspect of the internet that absolutely needs attention, it is nothing that we have not heard before. Frankly, by the time I hit the halfway mark of the film, I could not understand why The Social Dilemma had pulled as much attention as it had. All I saw were the same type of “Tech-Bros” telling the world that they made the like button on Facebook and now teenagers are obsessed with the number. Cool. Tell me something new. It did not help that the film forced the eeriest soundtrack in order to make the audience scared of things that would otherwise have little to no impact.

However, the turning point of the documentary was the analogy to describe how the algorithm worked just like Wikipedia.“Now,” Founding father of virtual reality, Jaron Lanier, spoke, “just imagine for a second that Wikipedia said, ‘We’re gonna give each person a different customized definition, and we’re gonna be paid by people for that,’” Lanier continues. “So, Wikipedia would be spying on you. Wikipedia would calculate, ‘What’s the thing I can do to get this person to change a little bit on behalf of some commercial interest?’ Then they would change the entry,” Lanier finishes. 

The rest of the film then describes that the algorithm analyzes the content that you would most likely engage with, usually a polarizing piece that way it has the best potential to get a click, and finds as much information along that informational rabbit hole so you are tied to your phone. Since they have made a system that biases towards false information, it is hard to find any information that would negate what the algorithm has fed you. So it begs the question, is the information that we say we are educating ourselves with even real, or is it just the information that can bring in the most ad cents?

Now, it’s time to think. In our current political climate, we are extremely polarized. Both sides of the left and right think that they are the most educated about an issue, and often tell the other side to “do your research.” However, if the algorithm only feeds us what they think we will engage with, then we are only going to be able to easily access the information that already aligns with our current views and favors the extremes. So what is real, and is there even a way to find out?

Nevertheless, The Social Dilemma continues to push people to confront the fact that the media they have created has run out of control. Regardless, I am not sure if they used that reflection on themselves. Did the directors of The Social Dilemma not use the same techniques in this film to manipulate viewers the same way Facebook manipulates us? They used the dramatic music with intriguing photos, on Netflix, one of the most popular streaming sites, favoring the extreme horrors of the internet so that it can get the most shares. The same thing applies to the way your phone can light up with the text, “Have you seen The Social Dilemma?” Where is their accountability?

Overall, The Social Dilemma was a thought-provoking documentary that made me and many others rethink how we receive information. If there is one thing that the film did teach me,  it was that I need to take everything I see online with a grain of salt, and The Social Dilemma will be the first place I practice that lesson.

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