The Social Dilemma is trending on Netflix at the moment. Have you heard about it? It’s that documentary where a number of former influential employees from places like Facebook, Google, Instagram, combined with data scientists gather ’round to talk about the… social media apocalypse.
The Social Dilemma is directed by award-winning filmmaker Jeff Orlowski, who is best known for climate change documentaries Chasing Ice and Chasing Coral.
In it, people like Tristan Harris, former design ethicist at Google, talk about their time working at tech giants.
“Never before in history have 50 designers – 20 to 35-year-old White guys in California – made decisions that would have an impact on two billion people,” Harris says.
“Two billion people will have thoughts that they didn’t intend to have, because a designer at Google said, ‘This is how notifications work on that screen you wake up to in the morning.'”
None of this is new information (even if we don’t want to think about it), but The Social Dilemma adds on an extra layer of confrontation by interweaving dramatic scenes of a fictional suburban family heavily dependent on social media.
There’s the teenage daughter Isla (Sophia Hammons), who suddenly becomes insecure about her appearance after playing around with selfie filters. And there’s her older brother Ben (Skyler Gisondo), who is radicalised through YouTube recommendations of “extremist centre” ideology.
It is, in so many words, a very blunt doco.
Guillaume Chaslot, a former engineer at YouTube, used to work on the platform’s recommendations algorithm.
“People think the algorithm is designed to give them what they really want, only it’s not,” he says. “The algorithm is actually trying to find a few rabbit holes that are very powerful, trying to find which rabbit hole is the closest to your interests. And then if you start watching one of those videos, then it will recommend it over and over again.”
Maybe it’s medieval covers of pop songs, maybe it’s coronavirus conspiracy theories.
The Social Dilemma isn’t all gloom and doom though, the people being interviewed do still believe we can change what social media looks like and means. Make of that what you will.
So, if you’re planning on watching The Social Dilemma, expect an interesting albeit unnerving documentary of where we’re at right now. It does not, however, really touch on other factors like inequality, corruption, and historical knowledge. But then again, it’s only one hour and 33-minutes long and it is, I assume, directed at a very broad audience. I can absolutely see this as Year 10 mandatory viewing.
It’ll make you think though, you only need to look at Twitter to see people either a) praising it, b) questioning it, c) pointing out the irony, or d) all of the above.
Everyone needs to watch The Social Dilemma on Netflix. Yesterday.
— Bradley Whitford (@BradleyWhitford) September 14, 2020
Netflix's The Social Dilemma: social media platforms are manipulating us to make us spend lots of time using their services and to do what they want.
— Josh Taylor (@joshgnosis) September 15, 2020
Then maybe you’ll share a link to a review on Facebook, which is what my mum did, or maybe you’ll write about it for work because it’s trending. Then, after the yarn’s posted to Facebook, the algorithm might just pick it up and – depending on what people have liked and read and viewed – it’ll pop up in their feed.
The Social Dilemma is streaming now on Netflix.Image: Netflix / The Social Dilemma