On a Saturday night, after being encouraged by my SI 110 professor as well as — ironically enough — nearly all of my social media feeds, a couple friends and I decided to watch The Social Dilemma, Netflix’s acclaimed documentary centered around the meticulously manipulative aspects of social media. The documentary claims that the principal intention of all social media is to exploit the vulnerabilities of human behavior for profit through engaging techniques such as constant notifications, precise algorithms that create personalized feeds, and exploiting different demographics of users in order to propagate agendas. The Social Dilemma incorporates interviews from high-up tech executives, shrouded in despairing instrumentals and horrifying infographics. Though the notion that social media can lead to addictive tendencies — especially in an attention economy — is no revelation, the documentary reveals exactly how companies achieve this: by capitalizing on our brains’ evolutionary demand for interpersonal connection. Upon finishing the film, my friends and I were, to say the least, terrified. The fact that our data and online personas were being auctioned off to advertisers felt like betrayal, and that isn’t even the worst part: We’re allowing it to happen.
Very quickly, we all posed the same question: why would Netflix, a company that thrives off of manipulative techniques, highlight all of this information and make it readily available to its audience? The techniques described in the documentary, such as perfecting algorithms in order to keep audiences engaged and stay glued to their screens for hours, are precisely what makes Netflix such a successful platform. To produce and release The Social Dilemma almost feels like a magician revealing how they do their tricks. Why would you ever want your audience to know?
Almost instantaneously, the answer to my question struck me, and I realized why Netflix, along with platforms like Facebook, Pinterest, Instagram, YouTube, TikTok, Twitter and Snapchat were okay with being bashed in front of a global audience: They wanted to evaluate how successful their manipulative efforts really were. Millions of people across the globe were being presented with only negative information about our daily habits, yet we accept the loss of our privacy and the continued influence of our cognitive processes as a price for a little more convenience and easily accessible entertainment. In short, they’ve won. They have successfully gotten an entire worldwide population so addicted and dependent on interpersonal connection and validation through social networking that all we can do is helplessly watch and accept the fact that this is something we need in our lives. The implications of our reliance on social media have led to an influx of surveillance capitalism, a form of our economy that mines human experience in the form of data in order to produce marketable inferences about the next thing that we will do, purchase or believe. Now, if you’re anything like me, you’re probably shaking your head right now and thinking “I’m not even addicted!” After all, as members of Gen Z, tech is kinda our thing. There’s no way it could be doing something to us that we don’t understand — right? The harsh reality is that computers don’t discriminate, and regardless of age or experience with technology, you’re just another product that they’re trying to make money off of.
Despite being told by social media developers themselves that their platforms have gotten out of hand and that they wouldn’t even let their own kid use their creations, nothing in my life has changed. Why, after learning about how I’ve been manipulated, fed content that has trapped me in a filter bubble, and sold to millions of advertisers as a product was I still willingly supporting my own downfall? This documentary was the cherry on top of all of the other information I had learned in SI 110, and the detrimental effects of my social media usage greatly outweighed any surface level benefits.
The documentary leaves its audience with an almost dystopian message of urgency: continue the conversation, and regain control of your life. The most dire question posed by The Social Dilemma is whether or not democracy can survive social media’s ability to blur the line between reality and fiction. Tristan Harris, president of the Center for Humane Technology and a key speaker in the documentary, poses “imagine a world where no one believes what’s true.” How do we rummage through conspiracy theories, propaganda and infamous “fake news” in order to discern facts from lies? More importantly, is this our responsibility as the consumer, or is it on the tech industry to actively make efforts against the spread of disinformation? While I personally don’t believe that everybody needs to delete all of their online accounts, we can collectively make efforts to limit our screen time and set aside blocks of our day for activities that don’t involve our devices. I understand, however, that this sounds extremely cliché, and it’s nothing that’s never been suggested before. I suppose that I, along with tech professionals, still don’t have a concrete answer to this social dilemma.