The Social Dilemma

Sunday night I watched the new Netflix documentary The Social Dilemma. It was the same kind of experience which I imagine someone who drinks 36 ounces of Diet Coke every day would have watching a documentary about aspartame. I think most of us know, at some level, that social media is addictive, that behind the likes and threads and cat videos and memes there’s this curtain hiding a bunch of not-so-innocent stuff. We just don’t find it convenient to look behind the curtain. And then we watch something like The Social Dilemma, which pulls off the curtain and says, “Ta da! Here’s all the stuff you didn’t want to think about!” That kind of sucks, to be honest. Ignorance is so much easier.

Most of the people interviewed in The Social Dilemma are former employees of various social media platforms. A lot of them were high-up employees– like the president of Pinterest, and the guy who co-created the Facebook “like” button. These people were running the show behind the curtain, and now they are saying, “yeah, we helped create a monster.” Some of them even confessed their own struggles with addiction to the social media they helped create.

Some of what the film has to say isn’t new– the correlation between the teen population’s social media use with its dramatic spike of anxiety, depression, and suicide has been written about a lot. Still, I’m grateful for every bit of information that rams home my resolution to try to protect my kids from the darkness behind the curtain as long as I can. However, my kids are still little, so right now the more pressing question is, how is the darkness affecting me?

At one point in the film Tristan Harris, who worked for Google as a design ethicist, takes on the idea that social media is a “tool.” He uses the example of a bicycle– a bicycle is a “tool”. It is something we use, it can’t use us. Social media, he says, is different.

If something is a tool, it genuinely is just sitting there, waiting patiently. If something is not a tool it’s demanding things from you. It’s seducing you, it’s manipulating you, it wants things from you. We’ve moved away from a tools based technology environment, to an addiction and manipulation used technology environment. Social media isn’t a tool waiting to be used. It has its own goals, and it has its own means of pursuing them by using your psychology against you.

-Tristan Harris

In a clip from a lecture, Chamath Palihapatiya, Facebook’s former VP of growth, talks about the way social media users so often conflate the “high” of getting likes, hearts, and comments with being valued– and the emptiness we are left with as soon as the dopamine shot to our brain wears off. Now it’s my turn for confession– my mood and emotions are affected by reactions (or lack thereof) to the blog posts I publish on Facebook. In fact it’s embarrassing to admit just how much they are affected. The more likes, comments, or shares a post might get, the better I feel about myself and my writing. People like me! People are interested in what I have to say! I’m a good writer! I can DO this! But then there’s the flip side– a sense of emptiness, of futility, doubting myself, doubting the value of writing at all, when I post something and it comes up empty. Nobody cares. What’s the point in writing? No one is reading. I don’t have any value as a writer. And that doesn’t even touch on all the more contentious issues– the way a stranger’s reply to my comment on a thread, which I interpret as brusque or dismissive, gets under my skin, and I find it eating at me, find myself framing imaginary arguments with this person (whom I don’t know and never will know), feeling as though there’s something at stake here, something I will lose if I just walk away from the screen.

Can you relate?

I’m a 31-year-old woman– if my psychology can be so easily manipulated by the virtual world, how much easier for a teen who is trying to develop a sense of self?

Another quote that really made me squirm was this one:

We’re training and conditioning a whole new generation of people that when we are uncomfortable or lonely or uncertain or afraid, we have a digital pacifier for ourselves. That is kind of atrophying our own ability to deal with that.”

Tristan Harris

Ouch. How many times a day do I reach for my phone just so that I can tune out stress for a few minutes? How often do I use my phone to distract myself from mental or emotional or even physical discomfort? And that’s not even counting entertainment. I can’t help but think of my own tween days. I was an insatiable reader growing up, and my favorite entertainment was getting lost in a book for hours at a time. I still love reading, but I know that social media and internet use have affected my attention span and what my brain interprets as entertainment. It is harder for me to lose myself in a narrative world– my brain is used to the micro-sprints of an article, a blog post, or the fragmented jumps of a comment thread. The marathon of a book takes more effort now than it did 15 years ago– and that’s not just because I have little kids.

There are good things about social media. Thanks to smart phones and social media, ordinary people can now shine a global, inescapable light on injustices today– such as police brutality against people of color in the US. People who have been abused, people who suffer from mental illness (like me), people who have endured trauma, can find empowerment through telling our stories to the world, and discovering that we are not alone in our pain. But we can’t ignore that predators, conspiracy theorists, and violence-mongers are equally at home on social media– and that the algorithms will prioritize whomever can pull in the greatest audience.

The Social Dilemma provides an eerie framework for the consumer/product model. I always took it for granted that in social media, I am the consumer, and the advertisers who pay for the platforms are the ones trying to sell me their products. It turns out this is backwards. We’re the product. Our attention is the product being sold to advertisers,” says a former Google and Facebook engineer. Another interviewee takes it even further: “It’s the gradual, slight, imperceptible change in your own behavior and perception that is the product.” All the social media algorithms, all the interfaces, notifications, interactions, are designed to manipulate us into picking up our phone again, and again, and again, to keep scrolling longer, and longer. They feed us a view of the world tailored to our personal tastes, ideas, and worldviews– which, the film posits, ends up alienating us from one another.

“We are more profitable to a corporation if we’re spending time staring at a screen, staring at an ad, than if we spend time living our lives in a rich way… we’re seeing corporations use powerful artificial intelligence to outsmart us and figure out how to pull our attention toward the things they want us to look at, rather than the things that are the most consistent with our goals and our values and our lives.”

Is there an answer? The defectors from the tech world admit that the only solution they see the outside regulation of the tech giants. Until it is made unprofitable for them to continue to run social media platforms as they are now, we can’t expect to see change from within.

So where does this leave me? Where does it leave you? Sickened… freaked out… conflicted… squirming… maybe a little bit of all of it?

Obviously there’s no blanket solution for all of us. I can’t speak for anybody but me, but I want to lean into the discomfort engendered by The Social Dilemma, instead of trying to forget it and go on as before. I want to think long and hard about my goals, values, and life, and see where and how my social media use is a hindrance rather than a help. Short of a tech apocalypse, social media isn’t going anywhere, and it’s up to all of us to figure out how to navigate based on the information we have.

I would strenuously encourage you to watch The Social Dilemma. Whether you use social media or not, it’s become a part of the world we live in. The film exposes just how inescapable it is.

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