The Social Dilemma


“Collective Problem, Individual Responsibility”

Daniel Trottier (Erasmus University Rotterdam)

What are Netflix viewers able to do about Facebook? And more importantly, what can they demand from Facebook? The problems addressed in the Netflix-distributed The Social Dilemma (2020) aren’t novel, as critical voices have long lamented the impact of social media. These problems are broad in scope, ranging from negative body image and invasive targeted advertising to political radicalization and polarization; the common factor is the platforms that serve as delivery systems for troubling content. In the film, the viewer learns about these platforms through interviews with a series of experts, many of whom previously held key positions at Facebook, Instagram, and Pinterest.

Near the end of the documentary, these interviewees propose collective solutions to this dire social mediascape. They invoke law and regulation, as well as targeting the profit motives of these private companies. They also claim we need to appeal to the humane characteristics that were allegedly foundational during the early days of Silicon Valley, supposedly in order to reform platforms like Facebook. A more humane Facebook may be a step in the right direction for users (and democracies), but this call overlooks the cyber-libertarian exceptionalism of these platforms. West Coast tech companies have long understood themselves, and framed their services, as transcending what Lincoln Dahlberg calls “the limits of geographically based paternalistic authority” of nation states. In exceeding any particular country’s borders, it follows that these platforms also exceed taxation and regulatory pressure. Furthermore, this appeal also misses the fact that some of today’s most influential platforms like WeChat and TikTok are far removed from California’s ideological reach, and likely unresponsive to such calls.

As the film’s credits roll, the tone shifts from calls for collective reform to individual mandates, from ‘what can we do’ to ‘what can you do’, and the viewer is presented with a series of recommendations to manage their own social media diet, as well as that of their dependents. Being mindful of screen time is important, and there is an appeal in remedies that viewers can take up immediately (“Turn off notifications!”). Yet the collective solutions entertained a few minutes ago are already abandoned. Drawing from 20th century sociologist C. Wright Mills, I argue that this shift suggests either a refusal or an inability to address these issues on a collective scale and as a public concern, but rather as individual matters for users to cope with in their private lives. For Mills, the “promise” of sociological analysis is to direct attention to the link between personal troubles and structural problems. Without this perspective, tackling collective social issues like political polarization and fake news (among other problems) becomes the responsibility of individual users.

Yet meaningful change to current abuse through social media seems more feasible through political pressure and class action lawsuits, as well as various forms of media literacy programs. Consider the distinction between – but also the combination of – someone trying to quit smoking and a government restricting where cigarettes can be purchased and consumed. The combination is stronger than individual willpower alone. Public broadcasters can also play a supportive role in promoting healthy media use, though it is not surprising that this would be omitted in a documentary distributed on Netflix, itself a global digital media platform deeply embedded in audiences’ daily lives, with its own opaque exploitation of user data and recommendation systems that promote excessive use.

Focusing on societal solutions should not mean overlooking users’ own agency, yet The Social Dilemma largely excludes user perspectives in its footage. Recognizing that many users are aware of the costs of their social connectivity, the viewer may be left wondering about the negotiations, tradeoffs, and resignation people experience in their overuse of these social media platforms. Intermittent reinforcement and dopamine spikes are an undeniable force in our platform dependence. Allowing viewers to hear about these experiences in users’ own words would have strengthened the film’s central argument.

Even if The Social Dilemma’s message doesn’t hit the viewer as a revelation, it may leave them wanting to log off platforms like Facebook and regain some distance from the reach of perpetual data gathering and targeted recommendations. Yet, as we are also compelled to stay at home and avoid embodied social contact, the complications brought on by this pandemic pose challenges for those trying to wean themselves from social media and remain connected to those around them. The rise of video call platforms like Zoom offer a real time alternative to social contact by way of status updates and shared links. While Zoom has struggled with its own privacy and security problems, its continued appeal may lie in the fact that it isn’t powered by algorithms that determine the user’s next encounter, compared to the ad-riddled, asynchronous scroll of Facebook or Instagram. The documentary also brings up Wikipedia and the ‘old’ (pre Web 2.0) Internet as reminders of how viewers could otherwise engage with others online. While non-‘social’ websites are not beyond critique, it’s helpful to remember that there are indeed online spaces that are neither profit-driven, nor governed by recommendation systems. If individual choices are the only options The Social Dilemma proposes, we can at least work towards collectives beyond Zuckerberg’s reach.


“Whose Social Dilemma?”

Briana Barner (University of Texas at Austin)

Watching The Social Dilemma during a global pandemic is…interesting. The main premise, or the social dilemma at hand, is the epic proportion of control that social media has in “our” lives. We’re all addicted to it, the documentary screams at us: We’re giving away so much of our information to these companies! Our kids can’t control themselves! Don’t let your kids use social media! In fact, most of the former tech workers interviewed for the film smugly remind us that their kids don’t use social media. One of the interviewees says he doesn’t think kids should use social media until they’re 16. Way too much screen time, they say, shaking their heads.

Yet, it is unclear precisely who they think they are speaking to. This message would have made sense a decade ago, when we were still learning how to use social media. But so much of society is now ingrained with social media. The internet is not a luxury but a utility from which most users cannot easily extricate themselves. The pandemic has made this point painfully clear.

Technology, including social media, has been one of the major threads that has kept people connected amidst stay-at-home orders and enforced social distancing. Overnight, the socioeconomic inequalities that have always been present were laid bare as school districts scrambled to make sure that students had Internet connections and hardware to transition to virtual learning. For those who were already connected, many saw a marked increase in screen time. For those who were not, chaos ensued as schools tried to make sure students had hotspots and tablets to log onto e-learning.

COVID is briefly mentioned in the documentary but, presumably, filming was already finished when the pandemic began. There wouldn’t have been time to substantially cover how technology, access, and social media have intersected with COVID. But even if this documentary had been filmed months into the pandemic, I imagine that The Social Dilemma would have still persisted with its original argument, discussing the perils of social media and insisting on the need for more “humane” technology without focusing on the diversity of the actual people using these platforms.

One of the more glaring omissions of the documentary (among many) is the lack of perspective afforded to everyday, non-Silicon Valley users, who are assumed to be monolithic. The fictional subplot within the documentary revolves around a white, heteronormative family and their teenage boy who is addicted to social media. We see the boy eventually become radicalized by what appears to be an alt-right group, and in a bizarre twist of events, eventually get handcuffed alongside his sister while attending an in-person rally. It was triggering for me, as a Black woman, to watch police interacting with a fictional crowd of mostly white people. It was also a reminder that this boy was, woefully and inadequately, intended to represent the everyday user. Social media technology is also coded as white and male in the film. We see a trio of identical white men working behind the scenes to stand in as the all-knowing, ever-present social media machine; they do everything in their power to keep the teenager logged in at all times. They operate like puppeteers, using the data social media collects for them to determine his behaviors and predict his next actions.

With the best of intentions, the interviewees reckon with their role in creating non “humane technology.” The documentary’s overall aim is to rightfully call attention to how our data is being used, how we can be easily persuaded to believe harmful messages, and how children can be negatively affected by the pressures of social media, among so many other effects. But the documentary falls short because it speaks to and about a specific demographic. It assumes that the normative social media user is a young, white male with too much access to technology. The average social media user, they presume, needs a lesson in media literacy, which The Social Dilemma tries to address.

In a world of biased algorithms, the documentary reinforces many of the same harmful standards that perpetuate the marginalization of so many people. There are a handful of people of color interviewed for the film, but for the most part, the stereotype of the white tech bro is still dominant. As former tech employees, the interviewees have very distinct experiences with social media design, yet they lament the experiences of “regular” users. Are they really able to understand what the average user experiences, if such a user can even be said to exist?

We hear mentions of humane technology in The Social Dilemma but no mention of the invisible labor and harsh working conditions in which these products are created. It is also inhumane to assume accessibility, and the pandemic has laid bare the inequalities that have persisted as the Internet is treated as a luxury and not a necessity. Social media has been a lifeline for so many of us as the pandemic continues to turn our worlds upside down. Many of us don’t have the luxury of coding to help us solve an email addiction, as one of the former tech employees stated. Instead of speaking for us, the documentary might have included more users who were never employed by the same companies they are now critiquing. Voices from marginalized communities especially were sorely missing in the film. What are our social dilemmas regarding social media? Hearing from diverse voices would have illuminated different issues and revealed perhaps more relatable dilemmas.

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