November 27, 2020
The Social Dilemma Still-Shot from Official Trailer

The Social Dilemma

The first shot in “The Social Dilemma” shows Tristan Harris, former Google design ethicist, checking his phone. This simple shot reveals the central message of this entire documentary. This documentary can be streamed on Netflix.

The first time I watched this film I didn’t even give a second thought to Harris doing what I do every day — check my phone. But upon my second viewing, it all made sense as to why that would be the very first shot. Harris puts it best.

“There’s a problem happening in the tech industry, and it doesn’t have a name, and it has to do with one source,” says Harris.

But what is the source? I don’t think I can answer that question accurately. Every viewer becomes a student, and this documentary is the teacher. One would have to watch this film to understand.

Harris says that there is a cacophony of grievances that relate to social media companies stealing people’s data, elections getting hacked, tech addiction and polarization.

“Is there something that is beneath all these problems that’s causing all these things to happen at once?” Harris asks.

What I like most about this documentary is the use of narrative using a fictional character, Ben. There is a visual representation of how an algorithm works using a panel of three guys who basically control what Ben sees on his phone. Ben is shown struggling with how he uses his phone in multiple different scenarios.

The most intriguing part was when Ben made a deal with his mom that if he didn’t use his phone for a week, then his mom would replace his cracked screen.

The algorithm panel takes notice because Ben managed not to use his phone for three days.

So in an attempt to have Ben use his phone again, the panel sends a notification of his ex-girlfriend and her new boyfriend. This part struck a chord with me. I never realized how much Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat and any other social media app compete for their users’ attention. This film showed it is a fierce competition.

“We’ve created a system that biases toward false information,” says Sandy Parakilas, former Facebook operations manager. “Not because we want to, but because false information makes the companies more money than the truth. The truth is boring.”

I began to realize how much of my time and energy is spent in making content for my socials, and it honestly scared me.

Chamath Palihapitiya, former Facebook VP of growth, expanded on how much time and energy we put into social media.

“We curate our lives around this perceived sense of perfection because we get rewarded in these short-term signals; hearts, likes, thumbs up. And we conflate that with value and we conflate it with truth,” says Palihapitiya.

Palihapitiya continues that social media is fake, brittle popularity that’s short term and leaves you vacant and empty. We’re forced into a vicious cycle of short-term discontented gratification. 

“Think about that compounded by two billion people, and then think about how people react then to the perceptions of others,” says Palihapitiya.

Jonathan Haidt, professor at NYU Stern School of Business, says that kids born after 1996 were the first generation to get on social media in middle school.

“A whole generation is more anxious, more fragile (and) more depressed. They’re much less comfortable taking risks,” says Haidt. “This is a real change in a generation.”

The consequences we face when trying to preserve and uphold our image on social media is fear, fragility, anxiety, depression and possibly suicide.

With all that said, this documentary does end with a message of hope by basically stating that we can improve the technology we have made. Justin Rosenstein, former Facebook engineering manager, talked about his team at Facebook creating the like button to spread positivity. Rosenstein said they weren’t thinking about the ramifications, nor could they predict the consequences.

I struggle to remember what my life was like before I made my first social media account on Facebook back in 2009. I was only 13 and honestly, I didn’t do that much with my account. But I soon found my self-worth relying solely on how popular my posts were.

I would feel waves of depression in high school. I never realized the effect my brittle, fake, online social status had on most of my mental status. Looking back, I should have prioritized my mental well being.

“The Social Dilemma” has the tendency to be overwhelming. I found myself getting anxious because of the reality and severity of the situation that was being described.

Overall, this documentary has challenged me to change my personal behavior for the better. “The Social Dilemma” advocates for using phones as a tool and ultimately deleting all social media. While I do not plan to delete all of my social media, I am decreasing the number and types of notifications each app is allowed to send.

I give this documentary a strong five out of five. It portrayed the information in an understandable way without dumbing it down while also revealing the severity of the situation. I strongly encourage watching “The Social Dilemma” because it has a solid message and a clear solution.

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