The next time you pick up your phone to check the status of your closest 500 friends, consider a quote I recently heard: “There are only two industries that call their customers ‘users’: illegal drugs and software.”
In my 25-year career of writing, I have never felt the need, nor the desire, to publish a movie review, and I certainly won’t end the streak today. Instead, please let me tell you about a documentary that any person who has ever pressed a “Like” button must make the time to watch.
If you haven’t heard about “The Social Dilemma,” it’s time you did. Currently airing on Netflix, the documentary takes a deep dive into the background of today’s largest technological companies – Google, Facebook, Twitter, TikTok, you name it. Scattered around a fictional family struggling with the addictiveness of our smartphones are interviews with men and women who have worked in the tech industry and understand how it was developed.
Those who can’t put down their phones, and those who love the interaction of social media, will assume this is just another attempt at tarnishing the incredible business models that have been created by Google and Facebook. And those same people would be wrong.
In fact, the reason director Jeff Orlowski immediately gains credence with his audience is that he allows the subjects of “The Social Dilemma” to explain the wonderful aspects of social media, and how it has positively impacted millions of lives.
For example, families have been reunited, organ donors have been found, people have made connections that have landed them wonderful jobs and opportunities.
Even better, the men and women interviewed for the documentary don’t hold grudges against Big Tech. They don’t believe Google or Facebook or Twitter were created to do harm. Which is why we’re able to trust that what they tell us about the robots on the other side of our phones are compiling a frighteningly complete model of 3 billion individual “users,” and they’re using those models to do two things.
First, social media companies don’t just know what pictures we see, what articles we read and what videos we watch. They know how long we watch, they know how we react, and they know what we say and share about them.
Second, social media companies are now using these composites of us to manipulate the way we act. They can literally push us notifications about people or subjects and specifically change our emotions. They introduced “Like” buttons, emojis, quick reactions in order to make us feel a certain way and, in turn, to crave more of that attention.
They created a drug without the needles or the smoke.
Those real concepts may sound difficult to understand outside the context of the full-length documentary, so consider a couple of poignant thoughts from the subjects of this film.
Social media companies have amassed trillions of dollars in revenue because they can now sell individuals to advertisers. As multiple people in the film suggest, “If you’re not paying for the product, then you’re the product.”
That’s only the start, though. With social media’s ability to manipulate our minds, whether through the way we dress, the news we believe, the political beliefs we have, or the food we eat, these companies (maybe inadvertently) have developed an ability to specifically change the way we act.
“It is the gradual, slight, imperceptible change in our own behavior and perception that is the product,” says Jaron Lanier, who wrote a book called “Ten Arguments for Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Right Now.”
I can’t fit all the important topics of this documentary into one column, which is why I beg any person who reads this to make the time to watch.
If you haven’t heard of “trading in human futures,” that’s exactly what social media does today.
If you don’t realize how young people use social media as the only barometer of self-worth, you don’t understand the impact of the platform. You’ll discover the shocking increase in suicide rates among young girls from “The Social Dilemma.”
As a father of three youngsters who will one day ask for their own accounts, I learned that the man (Tim Kendall) who was the former president of Pinterest and the Director of Monetization for Facebook will not allow his children any screen time. If that doesn’t raise a paternal antenna, I don’t know what will.
And as someone who works in news media, and someone who has sounded alarms about the perverted way we consume news today, this documentary served as a wake-up call as the largest news companies in our country admittedly want to become tech companies and continue to hire engineers from places like Google and Facebook.
As we spend the next five weeks under a constant bombardment of political news, no matter if you tend to favor the left or the right, it’s so important we all understand that building your entire worldview around the scroll of your news feed is about as accurate as asking your preschooler to explain an inverted yield curve. (Look it up, and get back to me if you can figure it out.)
The business model of news has changed to mimic the model of social media. No longer do editors at major newspapers and TV stations seek to give you a complete perspective on any one issue. Instead, they seek to hook you on their platform, to get you to spend more time liking and sharing stories, and to get you to come back to that platform when they publish a story that meets your now-manipulated worldview.
The information we allow into our lives these days matters – maybe more than ever. If you’ll take the time to watch “The Social Dilemma,” you’ll discover exactly why.