by Emma Jean, Staff Writer
A couple of weeks ago, I settled into watching The Social Dilemma in the name of a family movie night. From what I had heard, the full-length Netflix documentary-drama sounded like the least enjoyable part of an introductory communication class, and as I watched it, my suspicions were confirmed. When I asked my dad weeks later what he remembered from the film, he replied: “Phones are bad.” He paused, and then said: “Well, I guess phones are OK in moderation.” The latter would be the more logical conclusion, but that certainly wasn’t the narrative the filmmakers overwhelmingly chose.
One former tech executive after another sat across from a camera and expelled warnings about the manipulative nature of social media while dramatic scenes played in between. It certainly made good points about the techniques that algorithms use to keep your attention, but it drew a sensationalist conclusion that the people who use social media are helpless against its seduction. In reality, users that are armed with a knowledge of how these platforms operate can often dodge these tactics and reap all the good that they can offer.
Many of the (over)dramatized moments of the film focus on the manipulative functions of social media, forcibly radicalizing a doe-eyed teenage boy through strategic push notifications. This reminded me of the presentations I sat through in high school attempting to scare impressionable teens into seeing the dark underbelly of social media lurking just below the surface of their cell phones. It’s not so much that they’re completely wrong — it’s ignorant to say that a sinister and manipulative side of social media isn’t weaponized in order for platforms to make money. Anyone who’s lost 20 minutes of their day from just opening TikTok can tell you that. However, it’s also ignorant to assume that there can’t be measures taken against it, and that the profit-hungry intentions of the product always outweigh the good it can provide.
Some of the most valuable and fulfilling communities I’m a part of have been discovered and maintained through social media. It’s helped me find hobbies, music, career aspirations, mental health support, political resources, queer groups, even a path back to something adjacent to spirituality. All of these have made my life dramatically richer, and most of which I likely wouldn’t have found without it. In so, so many ways, it’s made me feel less alone. I’ll take that with the side of digital caution any day.
A major ‘sobering’ moment from the film is the idea that when people consume a free service, their potential patronage is what is being sold to advertisers. While it does feel shocking to imagine some part of ourselves being sold as a digital entity, what that really means is that companies make money from showing us ads.
This just manifests in the way the personalization of ads has become more common and how social media companies are engineering ways to keep viewers online long enough to be exposed to them. If impulses around ads are managed and there is awareness of corporate tactics, social media doesn’t need to be a bad place. Simply turning off browser personalization cookies make it so personalized ads aren’t even shown at all.
Social media doesn’t need to be the boogeyman that the filmmakers made it out to be. They’re not wrong about the manipulative nature of social media, but don’t let that take away from the benefits. To be conscious of media consumption, take on strategies to limit exposure and not get sucked into ads or an algorithm. If social media is giving community and goodness to your life, it’s perfectly smart and okay to keep it in it regularly. Don’t fall for the panicking narrative that The Social Dilemma lays out.