Thoughts on “The Social Dilemma” Documentary

I rarely watch things right when they come out. For once, I’m fairly current on something: the Netflix documentary “The Social Dilemma”.

Former employees of tech companies are using their talents to try to make sure that technology takes our society in a good direction. They appear to feel guilty for creating a product that is so fun it has become addictive.

They call attention to the negative effects of social media, which were difficult to foresee. The guy who claims to have created the Facebook “Like” button says that his intention had been to spread happiness. They didn’t realize that the lack of likes could exacerbate teen depression. They worry that in some cases it has even led to suicide.

They mention early on that social media has actually done some good. I know personally someone who was adopted from a foreign company and then reconnected with his birth family by searching his family name on Facebook.  That’s neat.

I think they underrate Facebook as a utility for adults. Parents are using Facebook to notify neighborhood residents of school fundraisers. Adults are using Facebook to sell used furniture.

Facebook is a place to turn for entertainment, but it’s really become more than that for my generation. We don’t have physical address books. We have a phone Contact list and we have our Facebook accounts.

Facebook is not the only service being scrutinized. Former employees of Google and Pinterest, among others, came forward to talk about how those services use customer data to sell advertisements.

One of the good points they make is that the algorithms that maximize ad revenue do not have user well-being in mind and can unintentionally lead to spreading false “news” stories. It’s important for users to know this. I am glad that more people are aware, thanks to the documentary.

The fact that radio is funded by ad revenue never caused us to shut down radio. Maybe it was always more transparent to listeners, and the fact that it is less individualized makes it feel less creepy.

Speaking of creepy, this documentary is creepy. It’s full of creepy music and long pauses in which your mind goes to dark places. They should have made it one hour instead of 1.5 hours. It was very manipulative, which makes sense because it was made by people who confess that they are professional manipulators.

My conclusion is that we should treat social media like alcohol. Most people can live with alcohol, but it kills. Every year, alcohol kills people. The US government estimates that alcohol kills 88,000 people every year in the US. We should be more careful with alcohol and we should all be more educated on the potential for harm.

Some people would be better off if we completely banned alcohol, but currently the strategy is to manage harm through EMTs and medical treatment. There are support groups for people such as Alcoholics Anonymous.

We think young people are more likely to hurt themselves with this dangerous item, so we restrict the sale to youth.

The internet can be very harmful to children and teens. It’s important to point out that respectable social media services like Pinterest are not the only places where kids can go. Kids and “screens” is a whole ball of twine. Regulating Facebook may actually do very little to protect children.

We can do a public health campaign, sort of like what’s going on with sugary sodas right now. I think this documentary is the beginning of a productive conversation.

It’s hard to say that I disagree with the conclusions of the filmmakers. I suspect that I do, and yet they mostly just tell stories and ask open questions and fidget quietly on screen. So, it’s hard to pin them down on precise policy recommendations. Although I resent having to watch them fidget for so many minutes, I also don’t want to sound ungrateful for the effort they made to raise awareness of an issue they feel strongly about.

Let’s have more documentaries, and more blogs, and more in-person conversations about how to make a better world now that the internet genie is out of the bottle. Let’s keep middle school students off of social media. It starts at home and in the neighborhood.