Review: The Social Dilemma

I recently watched the documentary The Social Dilemma on Netflix. It has been hovering in the streaming giant’s top ten most watched programs of the day for a few weeks now and thought it would be good to check it out.

The documentary features interviews and insights with (mostly former) senior players in silicon valley who worked for either Google or Facebook for the most part. Most are ‘whistle-blowers’, former idealists who once believed in the power of social media to forge social connections and build communities, but who upon seeing the path the media giants were taking, felt compelled to speak out.

The documentary presents two main concerns with social media with regards: potential negative effects at an individual level and potential negative effects at a societal level. I will state here that I find the concerns raised on the individual level much more compelling. They show clear evidence that mental health issues, namely anxiety and depression, have risen substantially among teenagers and young adults since social media use became widespread among that cohort – around 2009. Of course, this is correlation rather than causation (which would be very difficult to prove), but it matches anecdotal evidence that I’m sure we can all relate to in our own lives. The invasive of cyber-bullying – the way it can follow victims at all hours and in all locations – is portrayed effectively, as is the way in which people who may be otherwise lacking in social skills or what sociologists might call ‘social capital’ – that is, connections, friendships or social status – can very quickly become radicalised by what they find online.

The depiction of the algorithmic nature of social media giant’s curation of content is illuminating, even for those who might think they already know how it works. What is truly new about social media is its ability to fine-tune and target content to match your emotional responses or state. In sense other than that, social media isn’t that different to traditional media outlets – it makes money by capturing your attention and by selling that attention to advertisers. But the ability for social media companies to know, and hence, provide what you seek, with relative precision does provide the platforms with enormous social power.

In its third act, the documentary extends these well-evidenced arguments to suggest that social media is at the root of what some might call a global rise in discontentment or populist anger. As a PhD candidate in politics, I found this explanation fairly obviously oversimplified and over-stretched. Whilst I think it is true that the atomising effect of social media certainly plays some role in diminishing common facts and understanding among contemporary electorates, there are many other factors that are likely just as, or in some instances, likely more important, such as the end of a historically uncommon long-run period of economic growth in advanced democracies that culminated in the 2008 global financial crisis.

The Social Dilemma is certainly engaging and worth a watch, particularly if you find yourself emotionally reliant on social media feeds, as we all have felt from time to time I’m sure. My advice would be to, as with all popular culture, take its pronouncements with a grain of salt.




Tagged in Review, social media, What messes with your head