If you are reading this, you have at least some semblance of what social media is and whether your impressions are positive or negative, you’ve made the choice to use it. We’ve all made that choice and given a nod to the societal embrace that has occurred in the past decade. Social Media is as vital as blood to the Internet and to many people it is the only way they interface with the internet at all. Whatever we think about it on an individual level, it is a critical structure in our collective social fabric and will continue to be in one form or another.
But, have we ever asked if it's bad for us?
That is the essential question posed at the opening of the narrative in “The Social Dilemma.”
“Is there a problem and what is the problem?” The question is brought forth to each of the tech builders being interviewed. It hangs in the air and they are unable to sum it up in just a single answer. These are members of critical teams in the history of Google, Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, Pinterest, etc. Central to these interviewees is Tristan Harris, former Google Design Ethicist who then founded Center for Humane Technology. Harris is on the frontlines for the push for ethical design in social media, which boils down to designing technology products with human well-being always in mind.
Which gets back to the first question. Have we ever asked if this stuff is bad for us?
I think we have, just without much conviction. There will be an article somewhere about an app having a damaging effect on kids but then the parent doesn’t change anything, and life goes on. There are the jokes told so often they are almost woven into our folklore now, the ones that revolve around “those kids” and “always being in your phone.” It’s like we know there are problems, but it keeps imbedding itself deeper and deeper into our DNA, and as it does so the quality degrades. The central message of “The Social Dilemma” is that those problems are much worse than most people realize. Systemic problems that will only become harder to treat and have more of an adverse effect on our well-being.
The systemic problems begin with our true relationship with the media companies who get our most attention. Many people are familiar with the general idea that the user is the product being sold to advertisers in the social media business model. The old, “if it ain’t free, you’re paying somehow” edict. But it goes even deeper than that. Jaron Lanier, a Computer Scientist and a founder of “virtual reality” explains it goes deeper than that.
“it’s the gradual, slight, imperceptible change in your own behavior and perception that is the product.” -Jaron Laniere
And that is what these technologies are doing on a vast scale, they are changing our behavior by digging deep into our evolutionary past and exploiting our psychology. The primary goal of these companies is to gain your attention for as long possible. After they have done that their algorithms can learn more about you and target better advertising to you, bringing in profit and continuing the cycle again to gain your attention with that new data they’ve come to learn about you. Your data is used to construct a model of you as a social media user, which is then used to manipulate your behavior on the platform with the content they choose to push towards your eyes.
To represent the relationship that users have with the AI behind the screen, the documentary follows Ben, a high school student who struggles to use his phone in moderation and is putty in the hands of the supercomputer behind his screen. To anthropomorphize the evil algorithm pulling all the levers, the film shows the AI at work in character. Well, it is really three characters, each played by the same actor but representing the three goals of the system seeking to keep eyes glued to the screen. Those three goals are USAGE, GROWTH, and ADVERTISING. We see the battles play out it real time. What content to show Ben to keep him on his phone. When and what ads to show him. How to get him to pick up his phone again after he tries to give himself a break, a competition offered by his mother to get him to spend time away from the digital world.
For Ben, the task of leaving his phone for a week proves too difficult and he eventually returns, only to experience the flood of stimulation and distractions he had so carefully rid his life of for a few days. That is what we are up against. Repeated over and over throughout the film, the idea of man versus machine becomes the central conflict. We are the products of millions of years of evolution and our brains have adapted to a world far more primitive than the one we inhabit in 2021. For a supercomputer created by some of the most brilliant software designers in the world, it’s an easy battle most of the time. Quite literally, the artificial intelligence turns its wheels to play on your dopamine receptors and creates feedback loops which leads to addiction. The same way a drug user can perpetuate their habit by turning to a fix to correct their dopamine depleted state, social media users continue their dependence by letting their neurons fire away at the fifteenth cat video of the day or a political argument where everyone repeats the same opinion. When our pleasure/pain balance is out of whack, we are more susceptible to seeking out the quick fix, which is often exactly what the AI is programmed to take advantage of. We are in a battle against something with no discernable weakness and we only have our lizard brains as a defense, it is no wonder the effects are so dire.
The film does suffer from perpetuating a strong “doom and gloom” attitude which just makes a dystopian future seem inevitable. There is a lot of pessimism from the interviewees in a way that takes away the agency of everyone who opens a social media app daily. And in all honesty, the implications of the nation-crumbling effects that false information and information silos can have on a society are scary. The documentary explores the tragedies in Myanmar, generally attributed to the widespread prevalence of Facebook and bad actors forming false narratives through the closed systems inherent in the software. The internet was meant to be an open-source landscape where information cannot hide in biased pockets. Social media has sectioned off the pieces of the internet, leaving a system vulnerable to be abused by those with bad intentions. Society is shifting slowly on these sectioned off pieces and reality itself changes. Everything on the internet is not true, but when millions of people believe it is and they impact their thoughts back into the system a negative feedback loop is positioned on reality itself.
Apart from completely deconstructing nations by reprogramming the brains of the society, we’ll all be good. Maybe. Though the film does fall in love with presenting a sky-is-falling mentality, they do offer some suggestions on fighting back. Interviewees suggest limits on screen time and other tricks like completely removing problematic apps or just putting the damn phone down sometimes. They do not offer much credence to the idea that the free market has a role to play in shifting the landscape, in fact they do not bring it up at all.
If these platforms are engaging in behaviors that are bad for us, why should we continue to use them at all?
We have seen MySpace rise and fall. It is the way of capitalism that companies will grow as they offer useful products and services then wane as they lose touch or offer less-effective products and services. So why should sites like Facebook and Twitter be protected from being challenged as our go-to platforms when they have shown a disdain for data-privacy and produce algorithms that aren’t in our best interests? We should not have to rely on legislation to fix all these problems. An exodus from these sites offers an incentive for them to change as well as providing an opportunity for other entrepreneurs to produce something better. We should be open to these sites being supplanted by better systems and algorithms which don’t exploit our behavior and use us as sources of income.
To me, the solution resides in the same place as many other solutions: practicing intentionality. The growth of social media has been a net benefit to society. All things being considered, these sites existing has brought about more good things than bad. And just like nearly everything in life, too much of it is bad for you. Even if the industry itself is stacked against you partaking in moderation, you can mitigate the dangers with a little work in that ancient amygdala of yours. The AI behind the screen feeds on those absent-minded moments. You sit on the couch and start scrolling. Your half-asleep perusal of Twitter. That glass of wine with an eager Instagram binge. When we forget about what we are doing, that is when the system in our phone sharpens its teeth. And as we shift into a new phase of our social internet, being open to new operations offering us a better product which doesn’t target our vulnerabilities.
Watch the Official Trailer on "The Social Dilemma"