The Social Dilemma is the latest Netflix documentary that brings into focus the ways we use and are manipulated by social media. It is a series of interviews by the big guns of Silicon Valley and some carefully picked academics. It is also interspersed with a current American family’s daily dealings with devices, as well as a dramatisation of how algorithms and the business model of social networks operate to predict our behaviours as individuals. Whilst it does this in a very powerful way and the overall picture may have you running for the delete button on your device, there are some elements of this “dilemma” that could have been explored further for a more productive outcome. Or at the very least enabled us to have some pathway to tackle such dilemmas.
The Social Dilemma tells us much of what many of us have been hearing and experiencing to some degree for years. It is also what many of us have been working hard to educate to others in a way that offers understanding, perspective and ultimately solutions.
The documentary powerfully brings awareness to some of the following notions about social networks:
Social Networks know what our brains like
The app makers, like gaming and gambling creators, know what our brains like. They know we get dopamine hits from likes, from making a kill, from connecting with people, from having people share our content, from reaching a new level, from managing to be the last man standing or crushing the most candy. They know our brain responds and will often divert its attention to a ping or a big red message notification. They integrate these “hooks” into the platforms to keep us engaged for longer, and to keep us returning time and again.
Social networks collect our data
The predictability model lets the networks know how likely you are to purchase, click, watch, consume, like or share, and thus how they can more easily target advertising your way. Now the extent to which people know this is obviously varied. But it must surely be growing obvious to us all that our clicking a link, watching a video or following a brand, sends our likes, desires, needs and wants to the big data computer library in the cyber sky……accessed and owned only by the big and powerful.
When the product is free, you the user, becomes the product
It is not the apps and networks themselves that are the product therefore. But rather by using them and freely downloading them onto our devices, we are buying into this business model and thus become the product. This model relies on the “free” setting up of accounts, consuming and sharing of content and engaging with other users all at a miniscule monetary cost. But it is in this giving over of all our data, likes, needs, desires, ex partners, favourite ice cream flavour, and most importantly the predictability for all our future behaviours and purchases, that offsets that low cost buy in.
Fake news, misinformation and disinformation is out of control online
The biggest threats to us as both individuals and as societies, is the inability for all of us to distinguish misinformation, disinformation, fake news and the like, from that which is true, authentic or real. The manipulation of media and content for power, for votes, for money, for greed, for hate or for sales, is certainly one of the greatest challenges we face, as our reliance on social media for our news and information continues to grow. Along with that, is a polarising of societies, whereby we can only stand on one side, vote one way or believe one point of view. We forget the all too critical thinking, nuances and grey areas that surely permeate all facets of society, but are not often explored via a meme or a 280 character tweet. Our heavily curated feeds that continually serve us up more of the same but in copious amounts, merely supports and reinforces our already held views, beliefs and bias. This renders us unlikely to make the critical analysis and discovery that may lead to greater truth, or at least increased transparency.
The power behind these messages in the documentary certainly derives from the people who are delivering the message. The Silicon valley ‘go getters’ who designed and developed thriving social network giants are now laying bare the manipulation, deceit and strategic selling of us as individuals, which has led to these new world dilemmas.
I do think however, that whilst the message was powerful, it is also a missed opportunity if we don’t take heed of the implications, and more importantly, offer up some solutions.
There is also some excellent research going into this area right now, some of which counters some of these claims and yet none of which was explored. There are also many ways we can or must look at the way we use social media to take back some of this control, rather than simply turning off notifications, deleting some apps and shielding our kids from social media.
I would like to see a greater focus on how we can work to understand and analyse the content we consume. To look for more points of view, more rigorous research, more critical analysis and learn to better question our unconscious bias.
I would like us to talk more about our curated feeds and how we can follow people we may not believe, have previously disagreed with or may offer an alternate view, just to be sure we are getting a more authentic understanding of the bigger picture.
I would like us to have the conversations with our kids about how to hack the many hooks that are meshed into the games and the networks and how we can recognise when these are safe and healthy, and when they are proving detrimental to our safety or wellbeing.
I would like us to look at ways government and ‘powers that be’ can insist on appropriate boundaries around the collecting of data and around the implementation of safety by design.
I would like us to have conversations about how we can be more mindful of the ways we scroll, the content that is served up to us and the role that technology plays in our wellbeing or lack thereof.
There is much we have learnt and will continue to learn. There are many mistakes that have been made and will continue to be made. But whichever way we look at this, the social networks are not going anyway soon, nor is our reliance on them for so may elements of our lives.
So we may well have recognised the dilemma, but dealing with the dilemma must surely be what next grabs our attention.
In the 1998 movie The Truman Show we were told that “we accept the reality of the world as it is presented”. And whilst following ones own path, questioning things one believes to be wrong and the notion that enjoying short term wins only serves those in power, may have been lessons from a time largely pre dating social media……..these lessons are proving even more crucial today.