The Eye-Opening Social Dilemma Behind Social Media

Have you seen Netflix’s newest documentary, The Social Dilemma?

 If you haven’t, it’s definitely worth the watch. The Social Dilemma, about technology and the way we consume information, is absolutely astounding. Incredible storytelling mixed with candid interviews and an honest look at the products in our pockets. It makes you take a step back and ponder. It’s no surprise that technology has had an extensive impact on society

There’s a well-known adage many of us are familiar with  “There’s no such thing as a free lunch.” Yet how many products and publications do we access for free every day? I should probably say “for free”, the quotes are important. Everything has a cost. If you don’t pay for the product, it would only go to reason that you are the product. 

Social Media or Social Advertising? 

social media puppet
“If you don’t pay for the product … you are the product”

Ask a high school or college student how Google or Facebook makes their money. There’s a good chance they won’t be able to tell you or rather they won’t be able to fully articulate exactly how these tech giants are a few of the largest revenue makers in the business. Then ask them what industry Facebook operates in. Nine times out of ten, they’ll say, “Social Media.” Technically they’re right, but there’s a caveat. I know this because I was that college undergrad not too long ago. 

Until very recently, social media/networks were not considered an industry. “Free” social media accounts generate no revenue. To monetize their platforms, social media companies take advantage of one of the oldest industries in the service sector – Advertising. Now, if that’s how the money is made, it’s not outlandish to assume that social platforms will do everything they can to get more eyeballs on their app at any given moment. More users, more impressions, more clicks, more revenue. The internet has revolutionized advertising. It’s ushered in what’s referred to as the attention economy – of which data is a major part. Being able to target your exact customer at the exact right time is every advertiser’s dream.  

This is not the first-time advertising has had adverse and lasting effects on society either. Just ask the Marlboro Man

The Social Dilemma includes interviews from employees that previously worked at all the major tech organizations to confirm this assumption. The documentary uses a crafty visual metaphor to help the average user better understand the complex strings that are being pulled behind the scenes to manipulate you, grab your attention, and drive you to reengage these social media apps. Queue the endless scroll feature. 

Everything is Designed 

Maybe it’s not a social dilemma but a design dilemma? 

As The Social Dilemma illustrates, we’ve been divided by design. More controversy leads to higher click rates which leads to more money spent. In an era of proclaimed “fake news” it only makes sense.  Democracy dies when once reputable media outlets are discredited or shown to be pushing some hidden agenda – each side believing they’re right and only presenting the facts that align with their views and beliefs.  

I don’t think it’s entirely fair to shift the blame to advertisers or the media. We as individuals are fortunate enough to have free will and make decisions for ourselves (or do we…🤔). Therefore, we must take responsibility for our own actions. But that does not mean we are shielded from manipulation. That is to say, we can be influenced. The adage “the pen is mightier than the sword” is not without merit. Communication and language have the power to control nations. The colloquial sword is just a means of enforcement.  

Tristan Harris, former design ethicist at Google, (now turned consumer advocate) is one of the leading voices in The Social Dilemma and in the tech reform conversation. He’s a prominent voice for ethical design and in the documentary, he mentions, (* SPOILER ALERT! *) the rise of AI. Harris understands that users are anxious and nervous about what will happen when computers and robots eventually supersede the strength of humans – taking away today’s jobs that are performed by human beings and giving them to robots with artificial intelligence. That being said, Tristan does point out, that in order for this to happen, there’s an earlier point of transition – one that many of us did not expect or did not even consider. “There’s this much earlier moment when technology exceeds and overwhelms human weaknesses.” (Tristan Harris, Social Dilemma, 40:43) He goes on to explain that this manipulation is the root of addiction, polarization, radicalization, outrage-ification, vanity-ification, and much more.   

Social Dilemma - Tristan Harris
Tristan Harris, Social Dilemma

The good news? The future is entirely up to us. Technology platforms need users like humans need air. We are their lifeline. If we demand change collectively, they’ll listen. Try the 30 Day Technology Detox Challenge, maybe you’ll like it. If not, it’s only 30 days 😉. 

Join the movement #PrivacyFirst 

Hungry for more? Check out some of these other articles: 

https://www.wired.com/story/tristan-harris-tech-is-downgrading-humans-time-to-fight-back/

https://www.vox.com/recode/2019/5/6/18530860/tristan-harris-human-downgrading-time-well-spent-kara-swisher-recode-decode-podcast-interview

Oct 8, 2020 1:01:49 PM

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