The Eye-Opening Social Dilemma Behind Social Media

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

If you haven’t, it’s definitely worth watching. The Social Dilemma is about technology and the way we are fed and consume information. It is absolutely astounding, with incredible storytelling mixed with candid interviews. It prods us step back and ponder. It’s no surprise that technology has had an extensive impact on society

A well-known adage says  “There’s no such thing as a free lunch.” Okay, so, how many products and publications do we access for free every day? I should probably write “for free” with quotes because everything has a cost. In the realm of consumer technologies, if you don’t pay for the product, it is reasonable to suspect 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. Chance are, they cannot tell you or might be unable to explain exactly how these tech giants are among the biggest revenue makers in the technology field. Then ask students to name the industry where Facebook operates. Nine times out of ten, they would say social media. (I know this because I was that college undergrad not too long ago.) Technically that would be right, but there’s a caveat.  

Not very long ago, social media/networks were not considered an industry because truly “free” social media generate no revenue. So, to monetize their platforms, social media companies take advantage of one of the oldest of all businesses—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 and keep them there. More attention means more impressions, more clicks, and more revenue.

The internet has revolutionized advertising; it has ushered in what’s called the attention economy, in which users’ metadata is a central part. Targeting selected customers on a massive scale at the exact right time is an advertiser’s dream. This is not the first time advertising has had adverse and lasting effects on society either. Just ask the Marlboro Man (or men, not man).

The Social Dilemma includes interviews from employees who had worked at major tech companies to validate its points. The documentary uses a crafty visual metaphor to help the average user comprehend the complex strings that are being pulled behind the scenes to grab and hold your attention, manipulate you, and drive you to reengage these social media apps.

Queue that endless-scroll feature!

Everything is Designed

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

As The Social Dilemma illustrates, our society’s divided state is by design. More controversy leads to higher click rates, which lead to more money spent. In an era of proclaimed “fake news,” this makes sense.  Democracy is diminished when once-reputable media outlets are discredited or shown to be pushing a hidden agenda and presenting only those facts that might seem to substantiate their views and beliefs (which is manipulation by omission). 

I don’t think it’s entirely fair to put all the blame on 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 choices, right? However, taking personal responsibility does not automatically mean we are shielded from manipulation, which is to say, we can be influenced.

The adage “the pen is mightier than the sword” has merit! Communication and language have the power to control nations. The sword is just a means of enforcement.  

Tristan Harris, former design ethicist at Google, is one of the leading voices in The Social Dilemma and in the tech reform conversation. Now now a consumer advocate, he’s a prominent voice for ethical design. In the documentary, Tristan mentions (* SPOILER ALERT! *) the rise of artificial intelligence (AI). He understands that users are anxious and nervous about what will happen when computers and robots eventually supersede the strength of humans, taking away jobs that today are performed by human beings and giving them to robots with AI. However, Tristan says that before such a takeover by computers and robots could occur, an earlier point of transition must be passed, a transition 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” (see Social Dilemma at 40:43, below). 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

In other words, before machines can take over—before we would be ripe for a takeover—our weaknesses must be exploited through technology to make us:

  • Emotionally dependent on technologies, such as social media
  • Set against each other through fear and blaming
  • Receptive to only the extreme versions of political or religious views
  • Accustomed to frequently feeling anger (and actually liking it)
  • Easily insulted or flattered

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, companies 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:

The Social Dilemma

The Social Dilemma Will Freak You Out, But There’s More to the Story

Oct 8, 2020 1:01:49 PM

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