As Mr. Weasley once said,
Never trust anything that can think for itself if you can’t see where it keeps its brain.
Yet, just as Ginny Weasley did with her Voldemort-infested journal, millions of us do so every day and maybe every hour. We let this invisible stalker into our lives, homes, bedrooms, and beds (although I suspect that whenever we drop our modern diaries down the toilet, it is almost always an accident).
In the words of Tristan Harris — a former Google design ethicist and product philosopher — from the Netflix docudrama The Social Dilemma,
If you’re not paying for the product, you ARE the product.
But wait, it’s too simplistic to leave it at that; it’s that 1% shift in your behavior and perception that is being bought by advertisers and sold by social media companies. Don’t believe me? Watch The Social Dilemma today — it is highly relevant to everyone in this day and age. Tech insiders — including former Big Tech executives from Google, Facebook, Instagram, and Pinterest — give damning evidence to how social media went awry.
Since its well-intentioned inception, despite its positive aspects, social media has also undeniably negatively impacted society beyond the vague, often-touted, surface-level claim that it rots the brain and causes depression. The Social Dilemma presents a compelling case for why we should limit our time on social media, or even quit. Its message tackles social media’s root perils and its surprising ramifications on society. Animation, graphics, dramatization, and vignettes enhance this message.
If you don’t have time to watch The Social Dilemma or need a little more convincing, allow me to present my top 5 takeaways from watching.
1. Social media began as a force for good.
At the heart of social media, apps desire to connect users to friends and family and help them stay in contact. The inventor of the Facebook like button intended it as a positive entity to uplift and encourage people, not as a metric that people would use to measure their value or for companies to use as business and marketing metrics. Along the way, though, it took on a life of its own. As the opening Sophocles quote goes, “Nothing vast enters the lives of mortals without a curse.”
2. The algorithm driving social media engagement has become increasingly addictive.
Social media apps track EVERYTHING users do in the app, even how long users look at a photo. Of course, they do still track more obvious metrics, such as liked images and followed accounts. This data enables social media to perpetuate a spiral of addiction as it suggests new followers and new content without even being asked.
In the documentary, the dramatization of a family of five solidifies this abstract construct. The people representing the AI algorithms scoured the teenage son’s app habits on a fictitious social media app to influence his opinion on politics and lure him back with tantalizing notifications when he attempted to quit cold turkey. The addictive algorithm, portrayed by a trio of actors, rapidly auctioned user attention to the highest bidding advertiser. Ever wondered how these free social media apps managed to become so lucrative?
3. Social media perpetuates disinformation and fake news with real-world ramifications.
One tech insider cites one real-life country as a case study in how a dictator used Facebook as the perfect tool to control the population. After all, sensational fake news spreads six times faster than the plain truth. Frightening, right?
4. To keep users coming back, social media apps perpetuate a warped sense of reality.
Social media recommends content based on user engagement with other content. Since users tend to only engage with agreeable content, that is what the app suggests. The inundation of likable content may give users the illusion that like-minded people make up the world and that their opinion is the only right opinion. Therefore, understanding an opposing perspective may become even more challenging as social media insulates users in an echo chamber of their thoughts. Perhaps it is no coincidence, then that the rise of social media correlates with increasing radicalization and political polarization. One tech insider claims that’s why she makes a conscious effort to follow a variety of news sources, even sources she might not agree with.
It also can perpetuate the illusion that everyone else lives extraordinary lives because most people only post their highlights, leading to feelings of depression and inadequacy by comparison.
5. Although I’m not the biggest fan of social media, I have not completely eradicated it from my life.
Instead of other big-name search browsers, I install DuckDuckGo as my default browser, which does not pepper me with ads or track my search history. I check social media once every two weeks for DMs before deleting it off my phone. My life feels fuller without Instagram’s steady presence, and I feel no worse off for never having had a Snapchat or TikTok. I also turn my app notifications off and unsubscribe from notification emails. Sadly, I still occasionally fall prey to the insanely addicting Instagram Explore page that pulls me in faster than a black hole in outer space. What can I say? I can’t resist those cute dog videos.
I am not saying social media is all bad. As the film acknowledged, much good has emerged from social media, such as the reunion of lost family members. However, social media’s design has become problematic because of how it hijacks people’s psychology to keep them on the apps. Maybe creating dependence on apps makes companies wealthy, but companies have a societal responsibility to put societal welfare before profit. Weaving addiction into an app’s design does not seem to be socially responsible.
Indeed, it’s a battle, sometimes a losing one, to make sure I use social media as a tool instead of becoming the tool of computer algorithms.
So, what do you think? Were you convinced about the perils of social media? Is self-control the solution, or are humans helpless in the face of cunning algorithms?
What do you think about social media after watching The Social Dilemma?
I’m quitting social media right away!
I’ll try to stay away from social media…
I can’t live without social media! :/