The last anthropology class in human history, perhaps in a classroom on another planet, will recognize social media as the most consequential sociological development in the history of civilization.
But, before we go any further, let’s get something straight.
“Social media” is better understood as the “social internet” because much of the internet is social, not just Facebook, Twitter, and whatever other social media apps we have on our phones. You probably don’t think of Google as a social media platform, but the results that are provided to you when you search are created by people. We often don’t think of YouTube as a social media platform, but the content created there is created by people who have vast audiences and communities socializing with one another.
The social internet is brilliant and obscene. It sharpens the mind and dulls it. It brings nations together and tears them apart. It perpetuates, reveals, and repairs injustice. It is an untamed beast upon which we can only hope to ride, but never quite corral. It is hard to see it now, but the social internet is not just the latest iteration of the printing press or the television. The pervasiveness and invasiveness of social internet can be likened to an alien invasion. There is nothing you can do to stop it; you must learn to live alongside it whether you like it or not. We may be able to log off the social internet, delete our accounts, and never participate. But a family member will tag us in photos or a friend will share a funny tweet in a group text message.
Do we understand the gravity of what the social internet has wrought?
A new Netflix documentary, The Social Dilemma, is an attempt to help us all recognize the pervasive negative effects of the social internet.
An Effective Wake-Up Call
The Social Dilemma, directed by award-winning documentary filmmaker Jeff Orlowski, is full of interviews with former employees of Silicon Valley tech giants bemoaning the Frankenstein they helped form. The documentary shines most with interviews with some of the social internet’s harshest and most well-spoken critics, like virtual-reality pioneer Jaron Lanier and Harvard professor Shoshana Zuboff. Overall, the documentary is an effective wake-up call for the average social media user who has no idea about the shady, behind-the-scenes tactics used by companies like Google and Facebook to manipulate users on behalf of advertisers.
Ex-tech employees like former Googler Tristan Harris and former director of monetization at Facebook Tim Kendall share about the widespread problems created by the social internet —from mass manipulation to mental health deterioration to the collapse of social order. Lanier, Zuboff, and others who have long been critical of the social internet’s effects on users explain how our obsession with social media is ripping apart the fabric of society and could lead to an end as dramatic as civil war.The social internet is brilliant and obscene. It sharpens the mind and dulls it.
Generally, The Social Dilemma serves as a picture window into “how the sausage is made,” providing a peek into the data-harvesting systems and manipulative architectures that undergird the most popular websites in the world. The only rough part of the documentary, in my view, is the cheesy, over-the-top dramatizations sprinkled throughout. Those portions of the documentary feel a bit like 80s after school specials about what happens when your kids do drugs or something. The implication of one of the dramatizations is that if your kid uses his phone too much, he’s going to become a violent protestor and get arrested outside of school. Of course, this is certainly possible, and the radicalization of young people is one of the many problems with the social internet. But the way it’s presented in the documentary feels far fetched and overdramatic. It’s hard to take that part seriously. Every time the actors appeared, I just wanted to get back to the real substance, the interviews with the experts.
The Main Problem We Face
The Social Dilemma opens with a choppy sequence of scenes in which the interviewer can be heard off-camera asking the different personalities to describe the core problem with social media. Each of them seems to nervously laugh before saying, in one way or another, that it’s hard to summarize “the problem” with social media in a simple sentence or statement. This is true. The negative effects of the social internet on individual users and different societies are so widespread and diverse that identifying “the problem with social media” is a bit slippery. But let me try.
The main problem with the social internet is that it is built upon a revenue-generating system that uses attention and engagement as its fuel and generates a toxic byproduct of manipulation.
Take Facebook as an example. Facebook ultimately exists to make money. Facebook makes money by selling advertisements. Facebook sells advertisements by keeping our attention and harvesting our data. Facebook keeps our attention and harvests our data by delivering us interesting content that makes us engage and stay on Facebook. There isn’t anything wrong with Facebook existing to make money —that isn’t a problem. A problem arises when the “interesting content that makes us engage and stay on Facebook” is content that rips apart societies or leads people to adhere to ideologies that may make them want to harm others. This is some of the most engaging kind of content, as people flock to conflict and discord on the internet. As a result, this controversial and pejorative content is incredibly profitable for Facebook. Yet another problem arises when Facebook makes a profit off renting access to user data for advertising purposes, but it refuses to protect that data from leaking out or otherwise being used maliciously (see the Cambridge Analytica scandal).
The question that is unfortunately not answered by The Social Dilemma is, “What is the solution to the problem?” At the end of the documentary, as the credits are rolling, the experts offer all kinds of tips on how to curtail social media usage (i.e. disabling notifications, delaying buying your children smart phones, etc.) and how to use it wisely. The tips are helpful, but they aren’t solutions so much as they are more wise ways to live with the problems.
The Only Solution We Have
David Foster Wallace, American author and novelist, once wrote:
There are these two young fish swimming along and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says “Morning, boys. How’s the water?” And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes “What the hell is water?”
We are the fish. The social internet is the water. Our lives are so enmeshed with the social internet that when an older, wiser fish swims by and asks if the water is clean and safe to inhabit, we don’t even realize we’re swimming in water. Like fish cannot escape water and live on dry land, the social internet is so woven into our modern world that escaping it and existing outside the social internet is virtually impossible. Even if you delete all your accounts, as Jaron Lanier recommends, someone will still tag you in photos or send you funny tweets. So if, like fish, we can’t live outside the water, what do we do?Do we understand the gravity of what the social internet has wrought?
Honestly, the best we can do is recognize that the water in which we swim is toxic. The water is very much not fine. Our job is to do what we can to clean up the water and not add to its toxicity. Recognize that Facebook serves you content with the intent to cause you to engage. That political post you received in your feed? Facebook knows it will fire you up and lead you to comment. Resist that urge. That sensual picture that appears in your Instagram explore tab is served to you because Instagram knows you will look at it. Be a smart fish: resist the bait.
The algorithms that undergird the most trafficked websites in the world have been created by brilliant programmers and mathematicians who lose control of the algorithms as they learn, develop, and optimize. So if even the designers lose the ability to control their algorithms, common social media users like us certainly stand no chance in outsmarting them. The best we can do is recognize the toxicity of the water. Inject goodness and hope into a world being ripped apart by engagement- and revenue-generating polarization. Don’t be fooled. Limit your use. Advocate for what is good and uplifting for others.