The Social Dilemma directed by Jeff Orlowski
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
The documentary portion of this film was excellent. It opens on a series of interviews with former and current engineers, designers, presidents, and ethical decision-makers of some of the social platforms we all use – Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Pinterest, etc. The main premise is how these platforms began with pretty pure motives. They were created to be content-sharing, thought-sharing communities, but eventually, the financial aspects and opportunities turned these platforms into places that can effectively build and destroy those same communities. Even whole countries can rise and fall to the power of manipulation these platforms hold.
But it’s not all doom and gloom. I think this documentary is meant to give awareness to the potential of harm that has already happened in our country. And I had noticed already a lot of what they talked about in this film.
Take Facebook, for example. When I got an account with Facebook, it was a little more focused on college campuses. My university had to sign up for Facebook, and then the only way I could get an account is through my university email address. Of course, a year later, it would be open to the public. Then, I remember that the newsfeed was chronological in the beginning. So many of my friends were upset when it changed to only show the friends we seemed to be more engaged with. Out of 500 friends, you might only see 25 of those friends’ updates on your feed. You would have to go to each of the other 475 profiles to see any of the other updates.
Then, as Facebook became a publicly traded company, they had to really show that they could make money. They created a way for advertisers to only show ads to those people who fit their demographic, and that algorithm got smarter and smarter. Soon, there was this bubble around each person, pushing the agendas and ads that would drive this person further and further to the fringes.
One of the interesting things was how different a search on climate change would be depending on where you live in the country. The top autocompleted searches would change if you lived in Texas versus California. Everything is built so that you will stay on the platform, because the longer you stay, the more ads you see, the more likely you are to buy.
I have my own thoughts about all of these platforms. I haven’t been a fan of Facebook for a while, so I might have a little confirmation bias. But it is good to approach these platforms with sober intentionality, a time limit, and an awareness of where these algorithms try to pull you.
The only thing I didn’t like was the fictional family that they follow throughout the show. The parents seem helpless. The oldest child seems aware of what is going on and prefers books to screens, but acts with more authority than the parents because she seems to know better. The two younger children are swept up in the rabbit holes and “likes” obsessions. And the ending is a little dire. I kept thinking, we have more tools as parents than what is presented. There are ways to keep up with what your kids are seeing online. When the girl smashes the compartment, the next scene shows her still having a phone. I mean, what the heck?
Still, this documentary is a good one to watch, even if it just lends a little more self-awareness to what you are doing online. There are a lot of things available now to track your intake and what exactly you are taking in. So I definitely recommend this one.
There is profanity in this film. No sexual content. One of the fictional children struggles with her looks. All the violent content are videos of riots and fighting, as well as a riotous protest in the fictional family story.