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The Social Dilem-MEH

A slightly shorter version of this piece was originally published in Italian on Rivista Studio.

I’m probably not the only one seeing dramatic announcements on my Facebook feed these days, with people suddenly deciding to quit the platform. There are lots of good reasons to unplug yourself from Zuckerberg’s data-sucking machine after all, and there have always been. The platform’s early founder has been known to address his trusting users in less than flattering terms, and red flags on its sneaky opt-out privacy policy were waved already a decade ago. More recently, and most of all, the infamous Cambridge Analytica shenanigans really gave the last blow to the emancipatory image of social media that had been building up thanks to the so-called Facebook- and Twitter-revolutions of 2011. So, what is it that’s shaking up my filter bubble now?

This time the trigger is The Social Dilemma, a new Netflix doc by Jeff Orlowski that paints an extremely dark picture of Facebook and social media in general. As a scholar of this kind of platforms, the movie did not upset me as much as it left the bittersweet feeling of a missed opportunity. Let me explain.

A strong selling point of the movie is this time the unlikely Cassandras “predicting” the imminent collapse of civilization as we know it are figures like Justin Rosenstein (inventor of Facebook’s “like” button), investor Roger McNamee (who also chipped into Zuckerberg’s beast early on) and other “formers” from Google et similia. According to the interviewees, the persuasive power of social media is now so deeply ingrained in our lifestyle that it got out of control: the apps where we spend all that time fashioning ourselves as the most interesting version of us we can be are also fertile ground for cyber-bullying, depression, and fake news (which can be leveraged to skew political elections as much as fan the flames of ethnic conflicts). That is obviously a huge problem, and we can only fix it by radically changing our relationship with social media — possibly regulating them from the top down and ourselves from the bottom (e.g. by dropping them). In the words of VR pioneer turned anti-social media activist Jaron Lanier, the very survival of our civilization is at stake.

This apocalyptic mood is reinforced by a series of sketches that oscillate between the dramatized re-enactments of true crime TV lore and dystopian sci-fi speculations with heavy Matrix and Black Mirror influences. The main thread follows the progressive descent of an American family through various stages of social media alienation: it starts with kids refusing to hold off their phones at dinner, it ends with one of them handcuffed at a demonstration after getting radicalized in the typical conspiracy theory rabbit hole. The role of the algorithmic deus e̶x̶ machina is highlighted throughout, thanks to little interludes in which Mad Men’s Pete Campbell impersonates the platform’s schizophrenic puppeteer (in a way reminiscent of the “angel” VS “devil” trope that is so typical of the cautionary tale format). Reducing the user to a zombie puppet is in line with the movie’s sci-fi/dystopian aesthetics, which as I said echo not only dark classics like Black Mirror, but also other recent series about the ills of social media like Dark Net (which I warmly recommend, it is really well done) or Netflix’s own The Great Hack (more focused on Cambridge Analytica).

The Social Dilemma is thus riding a wave of severe disillusionment with social media, big data, and algorithms in general — a wave that started a few years ago, even before the Trump election. Among the few academics featured in the documentary is in fact Cathy O’Neil, whose Weapons of Math Destruction is one of the most influential books about the worrying tendency of companies and administrations to delegate more and more decisions to algorithmic deliberation (from the bale system to university rankings). According to O’Neil, algorithms wind up inheriting the ideological bias of those very institutions: they amplify the inequalities and hierarchies that already divide society, and those who use them shield accountability by hiding behind the impersonal blackbox of the “algorithm”. Being able to bring these notions (and others like “if you’re not paying for the product, you are the product”) to a wider public is obviously good in itself, however there are a couple reasons why the movie disappointed me.

First of all, while acknowledging the “dilemma” in the title is not a mere design issue, Orlowski’s documentary still tends to favor the perspective of those coming from within the very same industry that needs to be regulated. Just like we are fascinated with former gangsters who finally hit the right path, we find ourselves listening to the inventor of the “like” button predicting a civil war, or watching former Google design ethicist Tristan Harris (now co-founder of the Center for Humane Technology) preparing a TED-style presentation and struggling to find “the” point of it all. This is definitely a necessary and context-appropriate rhetorical trick, but it reminds me a little too much of the “solutionism” lamented by long-time Silicon Valley critics like Evgeny Morozov.

But if the solution is not in the code, then, where is it? Towards the end the film has a more optimistic turn, and some of the talking heads appeal to a top-down regulation to limit the damage made by platform giants. This is yet another important subject, well worth discussing: we know GDPR exists, but not everyone knows how it works; we know Facebook and Google have de facto monopolies, but we don’t hear enough from those calling to break them up (who include high-profile politicians like Elizabeth Warren). Even within the limited area of platform design, interviewing developers or technologists who work on any of the many alternative models for data capture and processing already existing out there would have made a lot of sense. How about explaining why someone might want to choose Mastodon over Twitter, DuckDuckGo over Google, or even Ello or Diaspora instead of Facebook?

While touching upon some of these topics, The Social Dilemma does not really get into much detail, preferring instead to give an impression of general urgency and showing us a fictional girl who makes faces in front of her smartphone. This is another aspect I did not like about the movie: the “social dilemma” is different depending on who you are and what your lifestyle is. The figure of the zombie user might be useful to raise awareness about the dangers of screen addiction and other technological ills, but technology is just one of many factors playing into a digitized society. Capitalism is of course a big elephant in the room, and who you are is another big variable. For example, the longevity and vitality of the Black Lives Matter movement (compared to the other social media friendly coalition par excellence, Occupy) demonstrates how sharing can sometimes — literally — be a matter of live or death. While problematic in many other contexts, the virality of a video on social media can sometimes be the only shield against police brutality (or someone using it as a threat to someone else). And even without venturing into life or death territory, it is worth considering how feasible it is to take a full digital detox while you’re job hunting, or only partially employed. To paraphrase Jarett Kobek and his delightful I Hate the Internet (also warmly recommended), these days you need to be rich to drop social media altogether.

Google’s motto, you might remember, used to be “don’t be evil”. Well, in 2020 we know it’s not that simple. Not only because social media have complicated the issue, but simply because they are now as complex as the society they reflect and are so inextricably intertwined with. It might be beneficial to quit social media, if you can afford it, but I think we are only at the beginning of a process where only education (a better education than The Social Dilemma can give us) will help us renegotiate what it means to be “social” in the age of platforms.



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Nicola Bozzi

Afternoon person, eternal beginner. Research on #tagging + critique. Writing about arts, media & cities. Serious about comedy.