The Social Dilemma

The Social Dilemma: How attention extraction destroys truth (for social media users)

Stanford campus 2018

Netflix now offers the documentary 'The Social Dilemma', directed by Jeff Orlowski, moving in on the harms that modern social media have done to democratic societies given the inability of the masses to use them properly. The movie sounds like a logical consequence of 'The Social Network' (2010).

At issue is the business model of 'attention extraction', whereby social media companies make their profits by surveillance of user viewing and clicking habits and showing them pages that are the most likely to make them see the ads that corporations have paid for. The end result is 'average joe' people get distorted versions of truth, and instead have their existing social prejudices reinforced. At one point, author Soshanna Zuboff (Surveillance Capitalism, Jan. 25, 2020) says this business model should be outlawed, just as organ selling is outlawed.

The film gives a striking example of Myanmar, were cell phones are sold preloaded with Facebook accounts, and where Facebook becomes their only source of information, making it easy for dictators to manipulate the masses and oppress minorities.

The central real-life character is the handsome Tristan Harris, now head of the Center for Humane Technology (not to be confused with the Institute for Humane Studies and George Mason University). When an engineer at Google, he wrote a paper on the business model that got a lot of attention (not sure when), and did not result in the disaster that James Damore's did (James deserves a film, by the way) but that gradually died, even if it got a lot of reaction at once.

Harris is also shown in a lot of public speaking engagements. Other speakers include Justin Rosenstein, Chris Grundy, and Aza Raskin. There is a fictitious teen character Ben (Skyler Gisondo) who seems to be drifting toward a catastrophe with extremism but then pulls away.

Classical modern music composer Jaron Lanier ('You Are Not a Gadget') often appears.

Mark Zuckerberg is quoted a couple times, with blase answers like more AI.

In the earliest days of the web, people mainly used flat websites and blogs, and did not manipulate what people see according to behavior, although the likelihood of their being found by free search engines is affected by how the search engines interpret their behaviors. That is how I build my own 'reputation' with the content of my own 'do ask do tell' books in the earlier days. That too can become problematic with time, when self-funded, because speech like this can become covertly influential without being accounted for (which used to be perceived as a campaign finance reform issue).

The film notes that social media does seem to interfere with some teens' socialization. It says some have no interest in dating or in adult skills or independence (like driving). In younger people I see online (like YouTube channels) I don't see that. But there is a huge number of people with low self-esteem in this competitive world that probably do have problems and are driven to social or political extremism (the film cover the Comet Ping Pong incident, and later mentions Charlottesville and extremism in France and elsewhere in Europe). Other people, like myself, may tend to have less interesting in 'bonding' with people who have real needs.

A Sundance official selection in 2020.