Social media networks, originally invented to fulfill the human need for connectedness, are instead isolating and dividing us.
What’s more, their business model practically demands it.
That’s the illuminating and depressing thesis of the Netflix documentary, “The Social Dilemma,” which looks at how social media keep us hooked, and what that’s doing to us as individuals and to society. (Somewhat ironically, with the pandemic, awareness of the film has come through social media word-of-mouth rather than advertising or Fandango searches.)
We often hear this “dilemma” as the quest for likes, or that, “If you’re not paying for the product, you are the product.” The truth is a little more complicated than that.
As one of the participants points out, it’s not that you’re the product, it’s the subtle change in your behavior that’s the product. And that slow change is your willingness to spend more and more of your day on social media sites – indeed, it’s your inability not to spend time on these sites.
Facebook’s only real revenue comes from advertising (full disclosure: I’ve advertised both political campaigns and photographic services on it). The site’s ability to micro target ads to people most likely to respond to them is the value-add, from the advertisers’ point of view.
In order to do this, the social media companies use sophisticated algorithms that track everything you do on their site. That includes how long you look at certain images, in order to build a behavioral model of you, and predicting what will keep you interested, engaged and interacting.
FAST FACT: Facebook is expected to reach 1.69 billion users this year, according to Statista.com.
These models are so effective because they present you with the illusion of choice, while subtly molding your behavior to the sites’ needs, and they are increasingly irresistible.
The former president of Pinterest – who was building a business on this model during the day and knew exactly how these algorithms worked – chillingly describes how he couldn’t put down his phone when he got home at night, even though his family was demanding his attention.
(One of the few useful pieces of personal advice given is to turn off notifications on your phone. Trust me, this helps.)
As the companies see what keeps your attention, they not only can feed you more of what an ego craves, but also better target their advertisers’ messages. Said messages cost only a few cents per impression, but multiply that by billions of impressions, and we see how they’ve become the richest companies in the history of mankind.
The darker side of this is that what keeps our attention is confirmation, either of us or of what we believe. And when we’re fed a constant stream of reinforcement and confirmation, it has the effect of siloing us into political and social echo chambers.
It’s physically easier to deal with people who agree than to confront novel arguments in opposition, or to see news with unwelcome implications. And so we find ourselves increasingly in different worlds, seeing and re-sharing information that confirms our biases.
(For an entertaining and informative description of the brain chemistry behind this, I highly recommend the RadioLab episode on “Rite of Spring” and its reception at its premiere in Paris.)
When the movie turns to the political implications, its own biases become more pronounced.
It correctly notes that the Russian intelligence services played to their strengths by manipulating social media during the 2016 elections, although it wisely avoids the discredited collusion allegations.
“The Social Dilemma” never touches on the question of how social media or Big Tech could put its own thumb on the scale, nudging us towards its preferred outcomes.
As if on cue, when I googled “what if google tried to steal the election,” four of the first five results referred to Epstein’s research, one linked to a New York Times article disputing Trump’s claims on the matter and the next five linked to articles positing that Trump would try to steal the 2020 election.
We’re fortunate that this story is told almost entirely by the people who built the system, both executives and techies. They’re from a culture that leans heavily to the political left, and therefore has the trust of those to the left of center.
The right has been vocal about Big Tech and Big Social Media selectively censoring and limiting their posts.
Netflix’s Social Dilemma has shed new light on the way social media affects our society. But Tristan Harris has been warning about its effects on us for years. https://t.co/a2QrLV5F8Y
— WIRED (@WIRED) September 25, 2020
Several commentators complain that the pervasive influence of social media is keeping us from coming together to solve problems like climate change. It’s certainly true that postmodern society, as Victor Davis Hanson has noted, is no longer capable of solving actual problems. But the right might have a different set of problems it wants solved, especially by government.
When the film turns to potential solutions, the proposals are relatively uninspiring, focused on preventing or taxing data collection or outlawing social media’s ad-based business model altogether.
The solutions favored by the right – to the degree that they favor government dealing with it at all – tend towards breaking up the companies so the pieces need to compete with each other, or holding the companies to their status as neutral platforms rather than ideological publishers.
The talking heads in “The Social Dilemma” never consider those.
Having left-of-center representatives of Silicon Valley share these charges makes it harder to put them down as mere politicized conspiracy-mongering. It also runs the risk of having left-of-center viewers see only progressive solutions.
Will the social media critics of the left and right be able to find common ground and come together, or will the struggle over social media itself simply become one more social media-fueled power struggle?
Joshua Sharf is a Senior Fellow for the free-market Independence Institute, focusing on public pension and public finance issues. By day a web developer, he has also found time to run for the state legislature, be a state editor for WatchdogWire, write for the Haym Salomon Center, and produce a local talk radio show. He has a Bachelors in Physics from U.Va., and a Masters in Finance from the University of Denver, and lives in Denver with his wife, Susie and their son, David. His work also appears frequently in Complete Colorado and American Greatness.