What Netflix's Social Dilemma Gets Wrong

What Netflix’s Social Dilemma Gets Wrong

Seeing the amount of people on my social feeds comment on how mind blowing Netflix’s latest documentary The Social Dilemma is, I couldn’t help but think to myself how disempowered everyone must be feeling. Jeff Orwlowski’s latest work explores the effects of social networks and smartphones on human behavior and psychology by bringing together well known Silicon Valley dissenters in interview format and fictional after-school dramatization of teenagers who scroll through their feeds daily. The documentary’s essence is in the right place but the delivery is poor, oversimplifies complex concepts, sensationalist, and at times, ridiculous? (i.e. the representation of an algorithm as being three sociopaths running the algorithmic chamber in control of a helpless teenager’s life).
Before we discuss what’s wrong with Netflix’s Social Dilemma it’s only fair to map out narratives that are valid, even if they lack serious nuance. A host of these play out throughout the documentary, from the ethical User Experience/User Interface movement (known as UX/UI in the industry) that the Center for Humane Technology is promoting, to the threat posed by political polarization brought on by social networks to a brief touchdown on the corporo-financial aspect that allows these tech oligopolies to operate the way they do. More importantly, the notion that these dopamine hijacking technologies and platforms are a threat to many aspects of human behavior is a salient and concerning theme that has been worrying many in academic and activist circles for years now. Yes this is really old information.
This post will not go into the purely factual inaccuracies presented in the movie. Casey Newton of the Verge who runs ‘The Interface’, a column and newsletter about the intersection of social media and democracy, wrote a great opinion piece on these inaccuracies. From blaming Whatsapp for the lynchings in India, to equating Whatsapp with Facebook, to missing the lesson on radicalization and where it takes place on the internet (8chan, 4chan, Gab, Stormfront, etc.).
Nor will this post tackle how the most important voices that have been sounding the alarm on big tech have been completely omitted for a couple of ‘prodigal tech bros’ that feel guilty about their involvement in the industry. For instance many black feminists saw the Alt-right threat coming, for years for instance, where are they in Orlowski’s doomsday expert table?

Instead this piece will attempt to deconstruct the dystopian panic the documentary created in our collective psyche; to try and put people’s minds at ease over the tech in their hands, as hijacking and ubiquitous as they are, on one hand and over taking control of your mind and awareness of these networks on the other. Putting smartphones and social media to good use isn’t a pipe dream nor are we aiding in the destruction of the world if we align with that camp.

Technology isn’t the prelude to the apocalypse,

however, much like most of the fear mongering and oversimplifying rhetoric employed in the movie, technology is not the problem. As Noam Chomsky brilliantly puts it, “technology in and of itself is value neutral, a tool that you should use when you have a plan, when you know what you want to find.” Chomsky goes on to say that a hammer doesn’t care if you use it to bash someone’s head in or build a shed. Social media and smartphones aren’t as neutral as our friend the hammer, they have been designed to be addictive through various psychological means rooted in the engineering process itself. However this well known dystopian trope about technology with no presentation of the debate is a cop out. In this day and age it pays to expose a subject in a non dualistic way; appealing to the largest common denominator is tawdry work, especially in a documentary format.
The axiomatic premise of the movie is ‘social media is ruining your kids’ lives, your life and the world around you,’ an overcompensating alarm bell for a poorly researched documentary. Being worried about Gen Z kids’ obsession with image and their mental health is one thing but creating causal (i.e. not correlational) links between that and the demise of teenage life is a slippery slope and one that should be taken with a grain of salt.
A host of studies are being published (mostly meta-analysis and longitudinal studies, as close to reliability as you can get in social science studies) on the erroneous causal linkage between social media and mental health. Professors Candice L. Odgers Michaeline R. Jensen published research in March 2020 reviewing 40 studies on mental health and social media/smartphone use concluding “there doesn’t seem to be an evidence base that would explain the level of panic and consternation around these issues.” Many of these studies being published now are a direct opposition to the tide of media frenzy created from a study published in 2011 in the American Academy of Pediatrics that warned doctors about “Facebook Depression.” Funnily enough, and just like many studies in academia that get picked up by the media, in 2016 more research came out and the academy revised the study deleting all mentions of “Facebook Depression”.
Amy Orben, a researcher at The University of Cambridge carried out her own review of over 80 systematic reviews and meta analysis studies concluding that “when examining the reviews, it becomes evident that the research field is dominated by cross-sectional work (i.e. only a snapshot in time, as opposed to longitudinal) that is generally of a low quality standard.” Which is academic jargon for “get your measurements and data straight and stop with the sloppy conclusions.” Jeff Hancock of Stanford Social Media Lab reviewed all the studies done on the topic, and we do mean all, back in 2017. His research shows how statistically insignificant the link between wellbeing and smartphone/social media use is. The amount of variation in individual well-being that could be attributed to technology use was “essentially zero”, Hancock said (to be specific, it was 0.01 on a scale in which 0.2 is considered a small effect).
These researchers aren’t arguing that excessive phone and social media use does not matter, they are simply saying that the widespread belief that phones and social media are the cause of broader societal problems in kids like anxiety, sleep deprivation and depression is correlational (to an insignificant factor) and that the phones is simply a mirror that reveals what the child would have without the phone.
A tedious digression into academia isn’t in vain, something the documentary should have done as a background check? But to hell with doing your homework, feed your audience false equivalencies and add some ominous piano score in every scene and that should do it. Small footnote, who else thinks Netflix publishes tantalizing, sensational and one-sided documentaries (*cough cough* Game Changers)? It’s also ironic that the platform publishing a documentary about dopamine hijacking tech has itself popularized the term “binging content” in the global cultural zeitgeist.
Moving on, so if we go back in time and look at the amount of times technology has been lambasted for being the sole cause of society’s ills we can write a best-selling book because contrary to what Tristan (one of the prodigal tech bro apostates) recklessly claimed in the documentary *some people did get upset when bicycles showed up. On that note, Amy Orben (previously mentioned above) has done this research, as the bellwether researcher of taming the cacophony of doomsday talk on technology, Orben wrote a paper published this June called ‘The Sisyphean Cycle of Technology Panics’. The research shows how the appearance of new technologies always engenders the same reaction in society, and just like Sisyphus pushing the boulder up a mountain for eternity, this is done in a never ending cycle of technological hysteria. The paper’s introduction recounts how back in the 1930’s and 40’s with the proliferation of Radio sets in every household, people were in a frenzy over the effects of Radio dramas and content in general on the psychological wellbeing of children. No one today thinks Radio will destroy their children’s psychological wellbeing and yet here we are almost a century later doing the same cycle with smartphones and social media. This is not to equate the bicycle with the smartphone, not a comparison by a longshot, but to show that society’s fears about technology aren’t constructive.
Furthermore, like any researcher that understands the nature of scientific inquiry, Orben does not conclude on a value judgement note in her research, she does not comment on the effects or social repercussions of the appearance of new technologies as being good or bad, utopia or dystopia; she simply states that when new technologies appear, policy and psychological research need to create a framework that quickly introduces laws and regulations to limit the unknown effects of the technology until robust data is collected and mitigate the panic effect that’s born out of academia and callously ejected into mainstream media.

How to minimize the effects of Social Media using Cognitive Behavioral awareness:

In 2017 we sat down in one of our town hall meetings at our agency where we usually discuss personal development psychology, organizational culture, the world around us, basically nothing work related. It’s been a shared interest of ours for a long time at our agency to sift through psychology literature and content that empowers us to understand the neurological and environmental mechanisms of reward, attention span and overcoming oneself to learn and progress. The video we all watched was called “ Digital Hygiene: How We Might’ve F***D Our Attention Spans” (must watch). As an organization we are well aware since we started back in 2015 of the harmful effects social and digital have on our attention spans, our relationships, and the way we understand gratification; that’s why Netflix’s Social Dilemma gets a lot of ideas wrong and removes agency from the battle against the practices of tech oligopolies and our disappearing attention spans.
When we gain awareness we forcibly become less partisan and dualistic, we don’t see things as good or bad anymore, these binaries serve nothing but extremists and their narratives, in any debate. Netflix’s Social Dilemma treads in this line of rhetoric.
One of the many books we read in our agency book club back in 2018 was Cal Newport’s ‘Deep Work’ where he outright calls for quitting social media, not really a normal read for a company who’s bread and butter is digital marketing. Nonetheless, it should be a basic level of awareness that prolonging our attention spans in a world of immediate media trying to rob us of it is a skill set required from all modern professionals seeking to be more competitive in the digital age of Artificial Intelligence and automation.
Everything around us is vying for our attention, whether it’s binging or scrolling aimlessly or generally the ability to receive instant gratification from things external to us. We are in a constant war between our willpower (which is in limited amounts according to the insightful work by Benjamin Hardy) and our desire for immediate gratification. For these reasons, Cal Newport argues that “the ability to perform deep work is becoming increasingly rare at exactly the same time it is becoming increasingly valuable in our economy. As a consequence, the few who cultivate this skill, and then make it the core of their working life, will thrive.” Having Deep Work habits is essential to learning anything of substance, understanding how our brains are wired for focus or lack thereof can enable us to design our days around deep work habits. How to block time for deep work, how attention functions, systematic processes to train your attention span, closing all distractions when you’re doing deep work, practicing it daily, and many more topics are discussed in the book. An imperative read for anyone that got scared from Netflix’s Social Dilemma.
Ever since we read ‘Deep Work’ we created a workshop for our ripplers called “how to understand gratification and habit formation” and it has been a trademark everyone in our agency lives by. It’s because we work with digital that we know how to mitigate the effects of social media and smartphones using awareness and consciously driven behavior. Our experience can be of value to anyone unnecessarily shocked by Netflix’s Social Dilemma.
There are a host of guides and articles that come up in a simple search for ‘how to mitigate the effects of social media.’ However here is a curated list from our experience that puts human agency back in the driver’s seat, everyone should be aware of in this day and age with regards to their digital health and wellbeing.
  • Understand and take control of the algorithms. It’s simple, algorithms aren’t evil, social media content is being served to you based on your preferences, what you do on the platform and the interest of the company that wants to keep users on its platform by serving an experience to its users. This episode podcast on ‘The Knowledge Project’ featuring Hannah Fry, a mathematician and author of Hello World and The Mathematics of love, discusses the role of algorithms in society in an eye opening podcast episode, highly recommended hearing. Furthermore, you can change the preferences listed on any platform, Google, Facebook, Instagram, Youtube, you just have to make an effort; and once you do you get a better experience tailored to your needs and wants hands down. We always tell our people in the agency to use a platform according to its own logic, penalize bad ads, do ‘see first’ on Facebook to get the news and information you want without going down the endless scroll hole where your friends and family are bickering about politics (we all fall prey to that it’s not easy, we know), use Youtube to learn and watch longer format content, take control of the algorithms.
Facebook Ad Preferences
  • Prune your following every now and then. Over time you have accumulated many friends and acquaintances, some of these may still be relevant to your life, some not so much. A study found that Facebook friends affect people more negatively than other content on social media than people who follow inspirational content that matches their lives’ goals and desires. Find people that inspire you in your field, follow thought leaders, people that interest you genuinely, intellectual content, etc.
  • The corollary to the above point is to understand the concept of echo chambers and how to break free from them especially if you’re using social media for socio political reasons. Take a look at your newsfeeds and follow the other side of the coin. Go like pages and accounts on omnivores if you’re a staunch vegan, leftwing politics if you believe in the freemarket’s unquestioned holiness, some post-modernists and marxists if you’re too deep into Jordan Peterson (lol), too religious? Or the opposite and you find yourself condescending on religious people? you get the point. Not to agree with them but because again and this can’t be said enough, social algorithms put you in an echo chamber. This isn’t a validated or accurate opinion but it can be said that the world is so rigidly and deeply divided today because of algorithmic content. You strengthen the same views and opinions you hold by following things you agree with and that creates a positive feedback loop of your own beliefs and opinions. ‘Lefty becomes more lefty, righty becomes more tighty’ sort of scenario.
  • Do digital detoxes on the weekend or whenever you can afford. A brilliant channel on Youtube is run by Andrew Kirby who teaches the art and science of doing regular dopamine fasts. The idea is that when you deprive yourself of highly rewarding activities you trick your brain and rewire it to instead of going home and binging Netflix or scrolling on your phone, you pick up a book or go do an activity instead. It’s about tricking your brain into doing things that aren’t a complete waste of time.
  • Read ‘Willpower Doesn’t Work’ by Benjamin Hardy, can’t overstate the importance of this book in shaping your mind and understanding the neuropsychology of reward and habit formation. Here’s a nice introduction by a Youtuber into the concept of willpower doesn’t work. The premise is that having to use so much willpower to do anything is a symptom of an environment that is not conducive to your goals. Change your environment, put that phone in the drawer when you’re working, prepare that gym bag before you sleep so that you don’t have to do so much in the morning and skimp; in short find your weakest points and habits and design things around them to change them. It’s harder than it sounds for sure, but the power and awareness you have over your life after that exercise in awareness is priceless, especially in today’s digital age.
In 2020 literacy is no longer being able to read and write, literacy means being able to understand how today’s world is different because of how we source and are exposed to information. We need to constantly educate ourselves and future generations on important concepts that affect them such as digital literacy and digital hygiene. Our reptilian brains have not evolved enough to outsmart the allure of many things (calorie dense foods, pornography, social media, etc.) that are based on hijacking the dopaminergic reward and pleasure systems; however we can bring awareness to the conversation instead of peddling the same outdated fear of technology ruining our lives.

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