Culture Staff Writer: Matthew Cox
If your Instagram or Twitter feed looks anything like mine (The Social Dilemma would argue that it probably does not), then you may have seen your friends, family members, or news outlets rave about The Social Dilemma on Netflix. The Social Dilemma, a documentary infused with a fictional scripted storyline to further illustrate its purpose, tackles the negative effects of social media and how it influences the real world. While the documentary does a good job overall of pointing out the dangers of social media, at times it comes off as trying too hard to be scary, instead of letting the harsh facts of social media addiction, depression, and the consequences they have in the world speak for themselves.
The documentary comes from the perspective of many former top employees at big tech firms and social media companies. The very people who created the algorithms that influence people's daily lives are speaking up warning against the dangers of the software they helped pioneer. From the unprecedented rise of the anxiety and depression in today’s youth, to the social and political unrest occurring across the globe, The Social Dilemma focuses not only on the psychological effects of social media but also of the real, substantial changes and events happening around due to social media.
From obsessively checking one’s phone to the rush of joy when posting a photo and watching the likes flow in, social media can often feel like a drug and The Social Dilemma hammers this into its viewers. At one point in the documentary, the following quote is presented against a black screen:
“There are only two industries that call their customers ‘users’: illegal drugs and software.”
- Edward Tufte
This quote does a good job of pointing out the similarities between drugs and social media. Both give you a euphoric feeling, both are extremely addictive, both drugs and social media can cause the user’s mental health to spiral, and both can be extremely hard to give up. The documentary explores how these tech companies have taken advantage of vulnerabilities in human psychology to keep the users coming back. It explains that by using sophisticated tracking methods to track everything from the content you are liking to how long you spend looking at someone's profile, social media websites are able to deliver the right content to your dashboard to keep you engaged and interested. It’s a fascinating deep dive into the harms of social media on our everyday lives that leaves the viewer uncomfortable with their own views.
The documentary’s biggest failure comes in the form of its fictional drama woven throughout the film. The fictional parts of the film show a normal American family and the effects social media has on the teenage children. This part of the documentary comes off as overly dramatic and similar to a Freeform teenage drama movie. While explaining the issue in less technological terms is necessary, a more fitting solution perhaps could have been to interview people whose lives have severely been impacted by social media. Telling the stories of real people would have been a much more effective tool to carry the message of the film than showing an actor getting a notification on his phone that reads “Your ex-girlfriend is in a new relationship.”
While the film has its faults, it is a necessary dive into how social media controls our lives. With people this year being more physically disconnected from each other than ever before, The Social Dilemma comes at a time when it seems more relevant than ever.