• Sophie Becker

The Social Dilemma: Another Tale of [Mainly] White Men Ruining Everything

The Social Dilemma (Netflix, 2020) is the latest revelatory documentary to take the world by storm, exposing the unruly powers at the heart of every social media application, and divulging the true, more sinister reasons behind the constant pinging of our phone. Spoiler alert: it isn’t your unbridled popularity.

Netflix poster for Social Dilemma, a boy stares into his phone with flames dragging towards his mind, his hands are tied with puppet string that float away from his body
Netflix, 2020

The opening of the film introduces its star-studded cast, the biggest cheeses of the tech world: from the former Director of Monetisation at Facebook, to the Creator of the Infinite Scroll, to the inventor of the Facebook ‘Like’ button: they proceed to reel off the long list of world-leading tech corporations which line their resumés. At this point, you wouldn’t be wrong to assume we were already dealing with the certified Bad Guys™, but after the revelation that each had apparently blown the proverbial whistle and abandoned ship over ‘ethical concerns’, we are encouraged to note that this is simply a collection of unfortunate Frankensteins; horrified by the gruesomely powerful monsters that have evolved from their innocent experiments. Whether this is a character arc we buy into or not is another matter: it’s easy enough to give your two cents on your former employer when there’s several million blood dollars in the bank... sorry, crypto-wallet.

After these brief introductions, the film moves into an unconventional fictional-drama plot, where we are introduced to a family absorbed by their smartphones, hounded by their single disconnected sibling, a smug teenager who sees herself above such common behaviours (we all know one). The title sequence rolls, and this fictional storyline is intercut with the harrowing realities of recent news footage, (a technique almost bordering on cliché with its prevalence in recent Netflix docs), evidencing the extremes that social media has led to: from radicalisation, to ‘snapchat selfie’ plastic surgeries prevalent in young teens, and the danger of fake news in times of pandemic.

The film then leads with its most loyal whistleblower: Tristan Harris. This fresh-faced techie begins to unravel what seems a horror story, a dystopian future world where a small device in our pocket controls our entire lives, an episode from Black Mirror. This is, in fact, our reality. Something about Harris’ reddish locks, chipper smile and casual button-down shirt makes this news somewhat easier to bear. Nevertheless, as the film progresses we are plunged into the abyss of algorithms and artificial intelligence as a barrage of (mostly) white men in sparsely decorated, unfocused rooms (another growing cliche of recent Netflix docs) bring to the light the very real threat to humanity that this evolving digital world poses.

Tristan Harris sits in a dark room, smiling at the camera
Tristan Harris, small but mighty. Netflix, 2020

The fictional storyline, which runs parallel with the ‘talking heads’ of the documentary, is at times a little naff, but in general lends a useful insight into the life of today’s youth, tasked not only with navigating the path to adulthood, but also the online world held in their pocket. The youngest, only 11, is coaxed into the world of software-aided vanity, fuelled by Likes and fire emojis, unable to resist even a dinnertime away from this social connectivity. The depiction of her online bullying is a little facile, taking the form of direct insults and abuse, ignoring the more subtle undertones of every online interaction: the groupchat cliques, the gossipy screenshots, the crafty block/unblock mind games, to name but a few. Nevertheless, the experience of validation through online compliments is hardly far-fetched, and the real-life statistics only support it: the rise of social media use near-directly correlates to the rise in mental health issues amongst young girls. Even more devastatingly, this increase in social media influence parallels the rising suicide rates amongst under 19s.

A young girl looks at her phone with a concerned expression. The comments on her post are on screen, which read: 'OMG So beautiful', 'You're so awesome' and then 'Can you make your ears bigger?? Haha.' with an elephant emoji.
The young, fictional daughter faces cyber-bullying on social media

The second half of the docu-drama focuses more closely on cookies and the attention-retention tactics of social media advertising. The experts explain the methodology behind it, whilst the fictional family sub-plot manifests it directly: ‘inside’ the teenage son’s mobile phone three squirrely men devise their advertising strategy, as he hovers like a useless puppet above them; his lolling head tugged from side to side by the calculated allure of parkour videos, revealing bikini pics and extreme news content. They blast pop-ups for every moment of his missing attention, using not only the swathes of deeply personal information they have gathered on him, but also the proximity of nearby devices and their owners to manipulate real-life connections, all for the purpose of profit. It seems like a scene from a scarier Inside Out but these animated dramatics only reveal the real-life intelligence of the machines we trust with our most intimate details.

Though it may be a little difficult to swallow (especially when it’s coming from a group of incredibly ethically-concerned, yet mysteriously rich White men), this documentary does bring home some very difficult but important truths, and even equips the viewer with practical tools to outsmart some of these artificially-intelligent evils (even if they waited until the credits to do it): turn off your notifications, delete apps you don’t use, ignore the recommendations, yada yada. Despite the unsettling nature of everything Tristan has revealed to us, I seem to have acquired a deep faith that this small but mighty man will almost certainly fix everything. Either that or there will be civil war. It’s worth watching anyway.

”There are only two industries that call their customers ‘users’: illegal drugs and software.”

So put the phone down, go out, take some ketamine and live your damn life! But, as always, please like and share if you enjoyed reading this article.

Image of Sophie smiling

Sophie Becker is the Founder of Blister. Sophie is a self-confessed project-aholic and tends to keep her fingers in [too] many pies. In her spare time Sophie is frequently found scraping the barrel of her boyfriend’s mum’s Netflix account to hate-watch a new series she believes is unrepresentative and unfeminist, and is much less often found on any of the platforms that produce the European art films she actually does like: corporate VOD monopolies are a bitch.