Jeff Orlowski’s cautionary documentary makes a lively case that social media is well on its way to destroying us – and that it might be too late to stop it.
When this review of Jeff Orlowski’s new docu-drama The Social Dilemma goes live, the first thing I’ll do is tweet a link to it. I don’t usually feel weird about that, but after 90 minutes of being rather persuasively told that under-regulated social media might very well be the downfall of civilization as we know it, I’m a bit less inclined to click send on anything, even something as innocuous as a movie review.
But how innocuous is it, really? The Social Dilemma is debuting on Netflix after a talked-about showing at Sundance; in other words, it’ll be taking its reputation from one of the world’s most prestigious film festivals to the world’s largest streaming platform. Its case for an impending social disaster enabled by the very channels on which it’ll be advertised and talked about won’t be a niche conspiracist argument but a mainstream case made all the more accessible by a narrative thread fronted by Skyler Gisondo, seen recently in Hulu’s The Binge and prominently in this film’s marketing, for obvious reasons.
Suddenly, there’s a consequence to something as simple as a promotional tweet; the various interviewees in the film, which include former high-up employees of Google, Facebook, Twitter, and the rest, make a similar case that nothing is ever quite as straightforward as sharing an idle thought when it comes to social media. Unavoidably, profit works as a baseline motivating factor for surveillance capitalism, but that’s only really one facet of a terrifying digital force with the power to warp perspectives, shape political discourse, and undermine our belief in democratic institutions.
The subtle and insidious ways in which this manifests are a point of particular concern to the talking heads in The Social Dilemma. Social media is designed to harvest and redeploy user data in a way that tailors their online experience to their interests and keeps them online longer – since yesterday, I’ve had so many targeted ads for Goli Gummies I’m just about ready to tear my hair out. But that’s nothing compared to prolonged exposure not just to a product you can buy but an ideology you can buy into; as the sphere of your online interaction narrows, so too does your perspective, gradually and quietly, until your view of the world is only the size and shape your various social media channels permit it to be. What’s real and fake is unclear. What you’re choosing to do and what you’re being railroaded into doing by clever algorithms and a steady diet of frivolity becomes less obvious. Your beliefs and interests are, suddenly, lining some advertising exec’s pockets.
A dramatic narrative concerning a run-of-the-mill suburban family helps to illustrate the points being made by the film’s real-life interviewees. Barbara Gehring as the matriarch who has missed the social media trend and Kara Hayward as the elder sister, Cassandra, who is wary of it, give an outside-looking-in viewpoint for the worsening online habits of young girl Isla (Sophia Hammons) and teenage brother Ben (Gisondo), both of whom are engaging with the worst of social media’s feeding of insecurities and promoting of political extremism.
There’s nothing particularly sophisticated about any of the fictional stuff that The Social Dilemma offers, but that’s hardly the point anyway; it’s a literalizing of its ideas, and a way to diversify the content, which is already densely packed into a fairly tight runtime. That the film deploys all the same eye-catching and lizard-brain-prodding tricks you find everywhere in the online experience is either a clever point or, more likely, an unavoidable consequence of our always-online attention-grabbing society, so much of which we’ve already internalized and normalized.
The very fact that so many of those interviewed are former employees of tech giants is a damning point on its own, and that’s before it becomes obvious that those most knowledgeable about social media are those most inclined to limit their children’s exposure to it. These things aren’t coincidences, and how the code of silence among corporations relates to their bottom line – and how fundamentally human ideas of conscience and empathy are similarly anathema to profit margins – creates a bleak picture of our relationship with these platforms, the news cycle they infiltrate and sometimes determine, the liberties they take with our personal information, and what might be at risk as a consequence of all these things.