The Social Dilemma, released on Netflix on September 9, is a comprehensive evaluation of the dark side of social media, by some of the senior engineers who designed the underpinnings of these systems:
What is your history with social media?
I started this blog in the summer of 2010, after attending a seminar presented by the California Writer’s Club. I learned about “clickbait” from the blogger who led the session, who made his living managing eight blogs, and drew 50,000 – 80,000 hits a month. He used Twitter and Facebook to extend the reach of his blogs.
Fortunately, I didn’t have to hustle a profit from blogging, but I did take to social media to further publicize each post. For five years, I used it for little else.That changed in 2015, during the presidential election season and has only accelerated during our nation’s and the world’s accelerating disasters.
When I worked in the tech industry, we constantly had to think in terms of “cost vs. benefit.” By the start of this year, the benefit I received from social media was maybe ten percent – about the percentage of non-political and non-end-is-near posts my newsfeed provides.
Most of the time, especially during our covid related self-isolation, I do my best to start each day on a positive note – walking the dogs in a nearby park, morning meditation, breakfast for humans and canines, coffee and the day’s sudoku. In the late morning, I check Facebook and Twitter, and – I cannot recall a single recent exception – after five or fifteen or thirty minutes, the good mood is gone and I’m depressed – damn near every time! And I it do again and do it again.
The Social Dilemma emphasizes that such results, personalized by sophisticated AI to keep us clicking, are intended. Want an example of how personalized this stuff can be? One evening I was browsing Amazon for lawn chairs. I got up for a snack, then returned and opened Facebook. The first post I opened featured an advertisement for lawn chairs.
Beyond the manipulation, which most users suspect and understand to some degree, the documentary clearly shows that “objective truth” is a casualty of social media’s quest for profits.
If you haven’t watched the trailer at the start of this post, please do so now. I always assumed that Google queries drew responses based on the number of hits each post had received, but the documentary makes clear that this is not so. If you Google the phrase, “Climate change is…” your results depend on your geographic location…
After watching the Social Dilemma, I deleted the Facebook and Twitter apps from my phone, to limit the scrolling that too often fills any idle moments standing in a line or waiting in the car. There are several features on these sites I value, so I’m not going to quit them, but removing them from the phone means I have to make a deliberate decision to go to my desk and open the laptop.
Several days after this change, as my usage had fallen, I opened Facebook to find a series of posts screaming that almost every worst case event I ever imagined, in terms of pandemic, climate, politics, and social upheaval, was immanent. The algorithm that sent me adds for lawn chairs was trying to start me clicking again. Fortunately I was more irritated than upset, and shut it down for the rest of the day.
We are living through a time of isolation from each other and from things we enjoyed in the past. We are isolated knowing that our pre-covid past is gone. Here in central California, we are isolated by the often hazardous air, in a fire season that has already broken the record, set two years ago, for the worst fire season ever, (even though California’s “official” fire season doesn’t start until October). We are isolated as news and social media present us with daily images of a nation divided against itself and coming apart.
Not only does social media play on our anxieties, and stir them up for profit, but when you think of it, when you think of the nature of most of these posts, they are strikingly mundane! No flair, no imagination, no clear truth, no beauty, no art, no poetry.
When my actions and external options are constrained and constricted, that is exactly the time I want my mind to be open and spacious, and that begins when I turn off the screens, stand up, and look around to see what is actually going on…
As far as I know, Netflix is the only place to watch The Social Dilemma at this time, but whether or not you can see the movie, there is much to consider on the associated website, thesocialdilemma.com.