The Social Dilemma is a docu-drama movie available on Netlfix, which re-ignited the debate on the meaning, aims, hidden and inner mechanisms of social media platforms and their impact on youth, education, knowledge, and generally speaking, public behavior.
The Social Dilemma has two layers: one is the story of a family where three sons and daughters of different ages interact and react differently to social media exposure and use, under the eyes of their almost clueless parents. The second layer shows us “behind the screen” (or better, beyond the – black – mirror) of inner socialmedia mechanisms, commented and explained by a panel of developers, scholars and investors, who for different reasons parted their roads from the tech industry of social media and are now engaged in explaining the threats and risks that they contributed to set up. Some of them created the Center for Humane Technology, who provided most of the content and the speakers you will hear in the movie.
I am glad that this movie is making possible again to get back talking about these topics, but I have to say that I found the storyline of the family very weak and really too simplistic, while I found some interesting content in the contributions by the tech people trying to explain the behind-the-curtains mechanisms of social media platforms.
This “social dilemma” has been an ongoing debate for years, and while it is good to see it resurface again to the general public attention, I feel that here too, there is a lack of deeper analysis which could have been added, and which I will try to add here for whoever might be interested. So we have three main focuses already laid down for this post: let’s start, and beware: from now on, you will find spoilers on the “family” story, as it is not intended to be your favorite movie, but just to stage some situations which are then discussed or touched by the expert talks.
The social dilemma of the average connected family?
The family followed by the first layer of the movie is, as I said, way too stereotypical in my opinion. Not in its composition, matching all politically-correct details of a wide and diverse range of ethnic proveniences, genders and ages, but in everybody’s behavior related to socialmedia. The older daughter, probably in her late 20s – early 30s, is completely disconnected from and not interested in social platforms. She continuously advices her younger brother to “go out and play football”, as probably a 70+ grandmother would do: I know there are (a few) youngsters like this, but normally they would have different interests, other things they love to do, while here her character remains focused on this aspect only, and not developed any further. Such a pity. Anyway she puts things in motion, telling their mum something should be done to stop the excessive use of phones by her brother and sister.
The youngest sister is dealing with selfies and face-filter apps, as most teen girls do. An interesting moment in the story could be when she start getting hate comments about her appearance, after she posted yet another selfie in the bathroom, but… this is just left there and not further developed, even if it represents one of the crucial aspects in risks and problems within teenagers’ use of social media. I would have really appreciated some deeper discussion on the impact these hate comments and speeches have on teenagers’ self esteem, reputation etc. – which is something I deal very often with in my work. What is really incredible to me, anyway, it is what happens between her and her mother. When the older sister complains with mum about her brother and sister being at dinner with phones, mum decides to grab all phones and lock them up in a glass-jar-with-a-time-locker designed to… keep cookies far from American bellies.
(Allow a moment to let this just sink in.)
So the phones are locked down, and… the youngest sister just leaves dinner in the middle of some discussion, wears some eye-protection goggles (that we all have in the kitchen, come on!) and just breaks the glass jar, grabs her phone back and runs upstairs to post selfies in the bathroom, thus getting the hate speech comments I mentioned.
And… that’s it.
Now, parents of all world, unite: really?
She breaks the jar and grabs the phone and: that’s it? No mother running after her, no father standing up from dinner table to
shout tell her something? And anyway, trying to detach from the Italian-style family drama I am way too familiar with… would any family let go of such a behavior without a word? Once more, this tells me that when talking about the main problem with socialmedia and kids… we should also consider parents.
The brother is the kind-of protagonist, struggling with getting in touch with a girl through some instagram-like platform, and being prey of fake news propaganda, spread by some interesting “Extreme Center” (which could be the brand of almost all political parties in charge all over Europe…) on a facebook-like platform and through videos made by some youtuber-like conspiracy theorists. He will end up in the caring hands of the boys (and girls) in blue, handcuffed on the ground at an Extreme Center demonstration, and we will not know anymore about his destiny.
What to say: here we find some very interesting topics and aspects, thrown there without too much care of going deeper and without much connection to the comments of the experts. Isn’t it a bit of a waste? Why? Probably just to provide some emotional response from a less-caring audience? I would say this is a typical social media behavior, so it could have been really avoided in a docu-drama called The Social Dilemma.
The voice of platform designers and developers
This is what is very interesting and relevant in my opinion: a group of developers and members of the tech-biz firms developing the social media platforms, decided for various reasons to step back from what they were doing, and start publicly question the platforms themselves about their behavior. Not a moment too soon, one could say, while once again getting some chills at the thought that technology is still being handled by humans with poor or no moral compass (even after atomic bombs, chemical warfare, and so on…) and anyway, seldom in the true interest of the community.
The relationship between science and ethics is too big to be discussed here, but it should surely be a part of this conversation. It is interesting to discover that Stanford University has been running a Behavior Design Lab, with different names and aims, since 1997. Who would exploit the studies of such a lab? Who is going to benefit from the design patterns to change human behavior that the Lab created? Could it be UNO, or WHO, or any educational system? And would it be more ethically correct than only leaving this knowledge in the hands of Silicon Valley tech people? I guess it is time to start asking ourselves this kind of questions too.
No surprise anyway, that one of the main speakers in The Social Dilemma, Tristan Harris, comes (a long way) from there, after being in charge of “ethical design” for Google. Another interesting discovery: the brand which invented personal data extraction and data-driven choice of what information you should receive – also known as “bubbles” – has an ethical design department. Wow guys, you will never cease impressing me.
No wonder (?) Tristan decided to step away, probably leaving a pile of money behind (and anyway bringing quite some with him…) and start campaigning against the system he contributed to create. He set up the aforementioned Center for Humane Technology, and of course he has a TED talk:
Always on Stanford website, you will find a lot of interesting videos by him, in the eCorner, “where enterpreneurs find inspiration”. The rest of us, well we don’t count, apparently.
On his side, The Social Dilemma features other developers who invented some of the small, little tools able to capture our attention for long time, which as we should have understood – and it is clearly stated here – is the main goal of social media platforms.
This is done trough a number of smart little inventions, like the infinite scroll of always-new and up-to-date content (invented by Aza Raskin), or through positive reinforcement mechanisms giving you dopamine rushes, as the Like button (invented by Justin Rosenstein, among others), and so on.
I find quite interesting that many of these mechanisms were invented by people in their (early) 20s, and I wonder what could have happened if they would have heard different voices, visions and opinions during their education, in Stanford or somewhere else – maybe getting in touch with some of our activities or contents. We just found yet another place where we should be, and we are not.
I anyway find particularly relevant that these people are here now: these are the tech whistleblowers, the few voices from a totally unknown and mysterious place where a bunch of designers and coders define how people will interact – react – learn all over the world. With no external control.
I think that we should consider these voices as a signal that a change is always within reach – but I am no naive, and I am sure that this will only happen through some conflict, that we should be prepared to stand. That’s also why I salute the fact they stood up, explaining that they invented monster-mechanisms that are changing the way human relationships work, just with giving the human brain what it craves for.
The addiction-by-design approach, mutuated by studies on gambling (meaning, the studies on how to get people gamble more: moral compass again, you science people?) is being more and more openly used in videogames, as we already discussed in the Italian section of this blog. The study by Natasha Dow Schull (2012) above, is still super relevant, and it is now becoming a tool to understand the inner mechanism of social media platforms too, as the former Pinterest CEO and former Head of Monetization for Facebook, Tim Kendall, briefly says in The Social Dilemma. Having this kind of statements reach the general public could really be a game-changer – but I feel that the movie still misses one point: why is this all happening?
Follow the money: you will find surveillance capitalism
There is a simple question I ask teenagers when I happen to be working with them on understanding social media better: how comes that all social media founders, Zuckerberg and all these guys, are rich beyond imagination, if they are giving you their services for free? Where do they get the money from?
I invite you all to ask your youngsters the same question – and prepare to be blown away by the most incredible answers you will get. They really have no clue. But money is the
root of all evil * engine of the world, so following the money, as all good journalists would tell you to do, is the way to find answers. I find these answers completely absent in The Social Dilemma.
I believe this is the most important point: if you are asking people to change their habits, to use less or no social media platform for instance, you should provide a valid reason. Now, is telling youngsters that their data are being harvested and collected by Facebook, Google etc, a good enough reason?
We all know the answer is no.
Shoshana Zuboff wrote The Age of Surveillance Capitalism: The Fight for a Human Future at the New Frontier of Power in 2019, after years of studies, lectures and papers on the same topic. I believe what she put in this book could help us all build a better answer, and I wonder why she only got a couple of sentences screened in the movie: she would deserve a whole documentary about her alone. I would do a one-hour interview with her, only about her concept of the division of learning in surveillance capitalism.
The book got outstanding reviews during these months, with Naomi Klein saying it should be a mandatory reading “as an act of digital self-defense”. I particulary love the praise by my beloved writer Zadie Smith, saying that the book
it’s really this generation’s Das Kapital. Or should be. The whole argument is that there’s nothing inevitable about the ways in which the technology has been exploited. There could have been another way. There still might be.
I think this is exactly the point: this model of social media platforms has been designed, defined, agreed upon during company board meetings and described in internal memos, as a way to get our undivided attention (and this is in the movie) with the purpose of selling us ads and sponsored contents of any kind, with no filter, be it even the worst fake news or conspiracy theories (and this is in the movie too) – but the missing point is that the extraction of personal and behavioral data happening around this, allows now the tech firms like Google or Facebook to foresee behavioral patterns, and in a way, to predict how we will act (or better, react) to contents their algorithms will decide to throw us.
This means that with throwing the “right” content to the right people, you could build up campaigns able to change history.
Too much? Incredible?
Well, another very interesting Netflix documentary, The Great Hack, describes how huge amount of behavioral data, showing clear patterns of actions-reactions of social media users, have been already used in some political campaigns advised by the infamous consulting agency Cambridge Analytica. They officially hacked Facebook systems to extract big amounts of data from users profiles without permission – but the main whistleblower in this other documentary, Brittany Kaiser, declares a couple of times that at Cambridge Analytica they were working together with Facebook staff while shaping their campaigns.
Some examples? The most famous is surely the Brexit campaign, where social media users reactions to tailor-made contents (based on fake news, but once again the approach seems to be: who cares?) were designed to move opinions of a relatively small, but carefully measured amount of people – enough to change the results of the referendum.
Even more scary, is what is told about Trinidad and Tobago elections, when a campaign aimed at not voting and targeted more towards Afro-Caribbean youth, with memes, songs, t-shirts etc, became a national youth trend and resulted in a massive absence from the poll by these young Afro-Caribbeans – thus contributing to bringing the Indian ethnic party to win elections for the first time ever. Once again, a small but crucial and accurately measured target was convinced through action-reaction patterns activated by social media contents not to vote, and this changed the history of a Country.
This could be a track to follow, to build up better answers, or better questions to engage with youth and discuss social media issues. As a matter of fact, these issues are becoming part of our culture now, and especially part of youth culture, so it will not be so useful to refer to past-century Orwell metaphors of some evil (soviet-like) regime that they have no experience about. We should instead start to use more fitting narratives, like the ones of Black Mirror, or Brave New World, that is finally emerging as the best metaphor of our times – something I have been saying for years.
As I tried to underline, I would not blame social media platforms themselves. It’s an entire system (can we use the word Capitalism in here too?) which should be questioned, and the ethical concerns of The Social Dilemma speakers should be spread and discussed more and more widely throughout this whole system, every time we talk about participation, democracy, education, inclusion…
Let’s do our part.
* Bonus track:
after this very tough reasoning, we all deserve some good time.
Here is Horace Andy, one of my favorite reggae stars ever, singing about money – the root of all evil.