It was a casual Friday night where I was sitting on my couch, by myself, looking for something to watch on TV. We only have Foxtel at my house, and truth be told, there's only so much trashy reality TV one can watch at a time. I was craving some change in what I watch. I was craving more to watch. And with that need for more, I came out from under my metaphorical rock and bought myself a Netflix subscription. Yep, for everyone who's ever badgered me to get it, I finally caved and got it. And boy, was it the best decision!
I know, I'm super late to the Netflix bandwagon, but better late than never, right?! I was slightly overwhelmed with the options available on Netflix upon signing up and entering the platform. Stranger Things... Vampire Diaries... Riverdale... so much to choose from. I think I spent more time scrolling through the options than watching that night, but I finally decided on one show to get me through the evening. The Social Dilemma.
Being a social media professional, it's probably a no-brainer that this was my first choice of viewing in my newfound Netflix-filled life, especially being someone who loves to dive deep beyond the usual likes and comments of social media, and into the world of why we do what we do online. And with it being one of the top new documentaries on Netflix currently, and having seen a plethora of news, articles and thoughts on the show online, I was intrigued to give it a watch.
The Netflix bio for the doco describes it as a 'documentary-drama hybrid' that 'explores the dangerous human impact of social networking, with tech experts sounding the alarm on their own creations.'
With digital detoxes, and self-imposed tech cut-offs being major buzzwords surrounding the use of online and social media platforms for the last few years, and especially this year with the drama that is 2020, the hype around these practices is completely justified when viewing The Social Dilemma.
Through 90 mins of exploring all the ways in which social media sites capitalise on their users, The Social Dilemma calls upon multiple heavyweight Silicon Valley engineers, co-founders and product developers to explain how sites like Facebook and Pinterest are designed to keep users coming back. And at first I couldn't help but think... well, duh. Facebook, Instagram, Google—they're businesses. And, at the end of the day, no one is producing this technology without any desire to gain from them. And as a social media manager having regularly dived into the social media advertising world, these concepts were quite familiar to me already.
Where it starts to become a bit more fishy and crazy, however, is when they discuss the very specific ways these sites go about generating profit for themselves. The monetisation of these everyday sites is certainly overlooked by many of us. It's easy for us to understand how designers and artists have wealth because we actively spend our money on them, and yet we've failed to question how these 'free services' are worth trillions despite us as users not contributing (directly) to them.
And the answer is disturbingly simple: we are the product. Well, our attention and engagement anyway.
These sites are funded by advertisers who are paying, not simply for your data, but for the ability to directly market their product to you. But it's not just our clicks and views that these services are selling to advertisers. As Jaron Lanier, founder of VPL Research and author of 10 Arguments for Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Right Now, puts it "It's the gradual, slight, imperceptible change in your own behaviour and perception that is the product... That's the only thing there is for them to make money from. Changing what you do, how you think, who you are."
Harvard professor and social psychologist Shoshana Zuboff goes on to expand on how the danger in their algorithms is how they can "affect real-world behaviour and emotions without ever triggering the user's awareness."
And therein lies the problem, the lack of understanding around our 'choices'. And how alarmingly good artificial intelligence has become at predicting our behaviour and then using that to promote other behaviour, based on our past activity. The illusion of agency is generally what stops us from questioning the ethics of this.
But as Tristan Harris, (who I'm now a huge fan of) former Ethicist at Google and founder of Humane Technology says, "Your phone is not a tool that is just sitting there waiting to be used. It has its own goals, and it's [actively] using your psychology against you."
And as users we are completely clueless to all of this.
The cold, crazy to hear reality is that our activity is being documented and fed back to programs that then modify algorithms accordingly to more accurately predict our behaviour. As tech engineer Jeff Seibert confirms, all our deepest surveillance fears are actually kind of true... yep, I mean those of you with tape over your webcams. "What I want people to know is that everything they're doing online, is being watched, is being tracked, is being measured,. Every single action you take is carefully monitored and recorded. Exactly what image you stop and look at, for how long you look at it."
So... yes, they know exactly how long you stalked your ex, and they know damn well when to notify you of their new relationship: when your engagement is teetering on low.
But as the film goes on, we see the darker side of social media unravel, and where it pivots from data mining to the potential catalyst for civil disconnect. We see disturbing statistics regarding the rise in teen suicide at unprecedented rates, political polarisation, loneliness, mental health decline—it all seems to boil down to the rise of social media.
And a part that really stood out to me was learning that 'fake news' spreads six times faster than real news. As, while it makes sense that our newsfeeds are tailored to us, it also means that we don't see the counter point of view, or the truth. So, if your algorithm identifies you as someone that is more likely to engage in conspiracy-based stories, you won't see the real news.
And what does that leave us with? A distorted community where everyone is walking around with their own false sense of reality and 'popular opinion'.
But in the end, it's not all doom-and-gloom, and the doco ends on a note of optimism, acknowledging all the important change that has occurred as a result of its public platform and ability to connect people, noting that they wouldn't have even created the platforms they did if the intention was for them to be used for all things evil.
There is no one calling upon people to collectively get rid of their social media, but instead, the narrators promote ways to engage ethically and critically with technology, understanding that the solution lies more in regulation than complete eradication.
They recommend solutions like:
- Turn off your notifications (yes, the people who designed those pop-ups are telling you they're no good)- it's something I've found completely necessary to do, especially when I have over 200 notifications a day coming through my phone.
- Install anti-recommendation Chrome extensions
- Try to refrain from selecting the 'recommended' videos or posts, instead opt to make conscious choices. Choose to watch things or view posts because you connect with them, or they align with your values, not just because you watched something you did like and the next video came up as recommended... that is entirely subconscious thinking and choice-making.
- Fact check information before sharing it. A lot of social media platforms are now better fact checking news to stop the spread of so much fake news online.
Watching this documentary was so thought-provoking for me. It's made me consider just how much power social media has, and as a social media manager, how much leeway I have into targeting. I feel like this is a good and a bad point. It's made me reconsider how often I check social media and have focused on the numbers in the past. It's given me a better insight into the algorithms social media platforms use, and just how insane the online advertising world has become since the dawn on social media. Overall, it's made me reconsider just how I use social media both personally and professionally. But if I had to sit here and summarise my key takeaways from watching this, here's what I would say:
We have a social media problem. Similar to being addicted to drugs and alcohol, social media has become an addiction for many of us, whether we like it or not, or whether we chose it or not. It is important that you realize the extent to which our continued exposure takes a toll on our physical and mental wellbeing. The more frequently we use social media, the more likely we are to grapple with poor mental health, anxiety and depression. One of the reasons for this is that social media apps are designed to fuel unrealistic comparisons. By allowing you to see the carefully selected, highly saturated and beautifully captured best parts of everyone else’s lives, you can’t help but form unrealistic expectations of a “happy” and “successful” life. The result is that you will compare these curated and airbrushed versions of other people’s lives with the ‘negatives’ in your own life, become consumed by it and remain trapped in chasing the mirage that is a farce.
Social Media is designed to be addictive. One of the biggest things I learnt from The Social Dilemma doco is that social media really is designed to be addictive. Neuroscientists compare social media interaction to a syringe of dopamine being injected straight into the system. The constant stream of retweets, likes, and shares from these sites affect the brain’s reward area and triggers the same kind of chemical reaction as other drugs, such as cocaine. They explain that the platforms are designed to hook you in and keep you scrolling because, according to Tim Kendall former president of Pinterest, “the business model is to keep people engaged on the screen”.
Children are most at risk. The dark sides of these online platforms undoubtedly affect us all, but children and younger users are more at risk than the rest of us. The reason for this is simple– the current Gen Z (anyone born after 1996) were born into the social media menace and so have grown to believe that spending several hours of precious time on it as well as the unrealistic portrayals of people and their lives is normal. They have little or no point of reference for what life looks or feels like outside their digital communities and so, when that online community seems not to approve of their lives and choices or they’re playing a charade that feels inauthentic to them but is approved by others online (as is often the case), they can spiral easily into a dark hole of anxiety and depression.
Governments are doing little to solve the problem and protect users. Some world governments seem to have woken up to the social problem being pushed by big tech and social networking companies. Still, waiting on the government to take actual steps to fight the current issues posed by social networking sites will prove to be a painfully long wait. They barely understand enough of the basic concepts of social technology to be able to discern the problem it poses, not to talk of finding solutions to them.
You can (and must) make the changes on your own. Ultimately, you need to understand that it is up to you to figure out how to use social media without causing yourself any psychological distress. If you aren’t paying for the products, realize that you are the product.
Safe to say my first experience with Netflix was pretty profound. Would highly recommend everyone watch this if you haven't already. It's has been hailed as the most important documentary of the year because it discusses a very topical issue especially with the highly divisive and polarised political atmosphere seen right across the world.
But as a social media user, the most important question you should be asking yourself is: Are you using social media, or is it using you?