GRAPHIC BY PHOEBE KALLAHER
In a pandemic-stricken world where human interaction occurs almost entirely online, social media and the internet have taken on an even larger role in our lives.
Netflix documentary, “The Social Dilemma”, released in January 2020 and directed by Jeff Orlowski attempts to be a whistleblower in the way we interact with technology on a daily basis.
The hour-and-a-half-long movie outlines the commercial nature of any social media use. Companies such as Facebook, Instagram, TikTok and Google exist to make a profit, and with freely available applications such as these, the product being sold is not the app itself, but rather your attention. The longer you spend on the app, the more advertisements you see and the more money they make.
The point the movie makes is not only extremely valid, but pertinent. Yet the way the film goes about conveying this information dims their message and the possibility for any real change in the way our online lives work.
The principal problem the movie identifies is the power these social media companies have over our daily lives–and the disregard they have for the moral responsibility that comes alongside that.
Such is illustrated through interviews with the author of “The Age of Surveillance Capitalism”, Shoshana Zuboff, as well as former employees of the critiqued companies, including Facebook’s former Vice President of Growth, Chamath Palihapitiya. Interviews with members of these companies add validity to their statements and reduce any doubts in the viewer’s mind of the intentions of these corporations.
Yet such an accomplished set of interviewees with extremely similar takes on the influence of social media not only makes the movie rather one note, but succeeds in alienating its audience as well.
“The Social Dilemma”’s main fault lies in the way it attempts to influence its viewers. The majority of the movie is spent outlining why social media is bad, and instructing people to delete their accounts. In this light, the responsibility for this issue falls on individual users of these platforms. The movie makes a powerful critique against social media as a news source, yet fails to acknowledge the necessity it has become in the lives of so many.
The documentary film is routinely interjected with moments from the lives of a fictional family, whose technology-addicted son is used as a tool to demonstrate our broader societal affliction. This subplot contributes to the movie’s condescending tone and is altogether unhelpful in the collective mission it proposes to create a world in which Facebook and Google don’t own our psyches.
Furthermore, the film personifies the computer algorithm of Ben, the family’s teenage son in a weak attempt to make the docu-drama a little more interesting. In doing so, it completely loses whatever fear factor would have ever made this fictionalized storyline a powerful choice to begin with. The pretense of three men surveilling individuals 24 hours a day seven days a week and controlling their lives through alerts on their phones is a scary one. However any real translation to reality involves the loss of these three human brains and with it any significant concern.
“The Social Dilemma” manages to redeem itself marginally in the last few minutes. Underneath the final credits, those same experts offer solutions to the problem they’ve spent the last hour-and-a-half explaining. Here, they finally propose “turning off notifications” or “lobbying your congresspeople to regulate this industry.”
The documentary makes the argument that social media is as in need of corporate regulation as the automobile production industry. Legislation that would place taxes on the information corporations gather and store on individuals is something the vast majority of people would get behind. This is among the most legitimate arguments the movie makes, yet it comes only in the last few minutes. If you stop watching even a moment before the final credits, you would have missed it.
Ultimately, the problems with “The Social Dilemma” were similar to the problems found in many of the same corporations the movie critiques. As with climate change, poverty, body image issues and mass incarceration, the default is to blame individuals. Meanwhile, Facebook emitted 252,000 metric tons of CO2 equivalent in 2019 and Google Customer Service Representatives make less than Massachusetts Minimum Wage for 2021.
So turn off your notifications, advocate for taxation on the long-term storage of personal data, and don’t waste your time on this poorly constructed documentary.