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The documentary "The Social Dilemma” (2020) from Jeff Orlowski on Netflix (1h 34m) is a documentary-drama hybrid starring Skyler Gisondo, Kara Hayward, and Vincent Kartheiser. The documentary struck a chord with me, maybe because a fundamental and existential question about the impact of social media on a user is discussed by the experts who have been instrumental in designing these platforms. Though this concern has also been raised in other documentaries like "Screened Out," "Lo and Behold: Reveries of the Connected World," and "The Great Hack" and feature films "Disconnect" and “Trust” to name a few.“The Social Dilemma” forced me to think and analyze the role of social media in our lives. Indeed, it has become an essential lifestyle feature in the current era we live in.
Social media platforms fulfill our needs of networking: These platforms allow us to create content through status updates, tweets, comments, likes, posting/sharing/tagging photographs, and videos.They help us to find long lost friends, meet new like minded people, interact with them, form relationships, and even spend time with them. Social media applications give us the space to express our feelings, insight, emotions. In the current world, they act as pillars of human relationships, interactions, happiness, and emotional dependency. Some of these social networking applications are Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, YouTube, WhatsApp, Google +, blogging, social gaming, etc to name a few more popular ones.
Business companies have started using social media platforms for promoting products and services. Almost all companies have social media handles that help them pitch their services to potential customers. Important news updates regarding the company along with engaging popular trends are shared on social media handles.
Apart from all of this social media provides us entertainment and news updates. Certain social experiences like approval, a sense of connection, and belonging are also felt by social media users. All of this through just one device in the palm of our hand all the time everywhere, more or less “free”.
As a result, we find ourselves glued to our smartphones, and very easily addicted to them. This is one of the common complaints in almost every family. Most people join popular social media platforms as they have a fear of missing out (Fomo) and have the desire to continually do what others are doing. The current generation feels that it is need of the hour to stay updated and connected to the social media realm.
Issues like polarisation, destructive behaviors, mental illness, and self-image issues, are highlighted. Generation Z is certainly more technologically savvy as compared to the previous generation. Every younger generation is compared to the previous one in history — yet the documentary shows that gen Z is more susceptible to get duped by every click on any of the social media sites. Thus resulting in doom-scrolling, anxiety, depression, self-harm, suicide attempts, along with surgically mirroring online filtered images clinically called ‘Snapchat dysmorphia’.
The consequences of social media addiction are perfectly portrayed in this documentary by a fictional family.
The documentary provides some hard-hitting facts about the user and the technology. Technology- the way it is designed to exploit. The documentary featured experts like Tristan Harris, a former design ethicist at Google with the nickname “Silicon Valley’s conscience,”, Justin Rosenstein, the inventor of the "like" button on Facebook’s, and other pioneers of social platforms from Twitter, Instagram, Pinterest, and Apple. However, in the documentary, these individuals appear to be confessing and apologizing for strategizing, creating, and exerting the tricks to first entice us and then captivate us on these platforms. This documentary drama hybrid is imaginative and effective in showing how social media works.
The three manipulative artificial intelligence technicians - advertising, engagement, and growth - played by Vincent Kartheiser, suggest how the algorithm is programmed to create intentional addiction to social media. Strategies like push notifications, personalized recommendations, showing only relevant data, and holding conflicting details from us - all these are used to compel us to infinitely scroll and stay constantly engaged.
It is revealed that social networking sites are used not only to feed us the data we like, but they also influence our actions, turning us into easy prey through advertisements and propaganda. Our choices are commodified, but ironically we believe that we are given what we want. It in due course has been successfully manipulating our behavior, our attention spans, our decisions, our views about the world, our views even about ourselves. They intend to consume our time and conscious attention by exploiting the vulnerability of the human psyche to monetizing it.
The documentary shows a glimpse of the underlying business model used by social media websites or software. The sites are programmed to turn our gadgets into money vending machines in our own hands. Infinite doom scrolling and push notifications keep us constantly engaged. Personalized recommendations influence and turn us into easy prey for advertisers and propagandists. In 2010 user-experience researcher Harry Brignull coined the term “dark patterns” for such business tricks. Moreover, these tricks fall within the lawsuit as they adhere to the guidelines. The article“10 Usability Heuristics for User Interface Design” provides a good peep into the subtle nuances to lay such lawful traps. The crux is that these platforms function as intended and within the legal framework.
All said and done, social media platforms are here to stay. New applications or sites might replace the old ones or the current social media platforms will keep updating themselves. No second thoughts that we are witnessing a design that is fulfilling the desired function. During Covid 19 pandemic, social media has been an enabling agent in connecting people. It proved to be a testing ground for many products and services by young entrepreneurs. It is a breeding ground for gossip which is an important element of a social gathering.
The documentary portrays the journey of how a utopian dream of connecting people through social media lost its way, got hijacked with different intentions, and gradually transformed into an addictive, psychologically damaging, and politically dangerous force. But still, the platform does not fail to facilitate virtual human networking, sharing of ideas, thoughts, emotions, and information.
The documentary also comes forth as an example of design ethics, where we witness a confession by the experts about the negative impact of their own design on humankind. An interesting part of these confessions is that they have admitted how they themselves have fallen prey and are not able to resist these self-created algorithmic mannerisms. The problem is that for us as users, the overuse of the platforms does not become overbearing but the absence of it does.
I feel it is a moral dilemma because the designers understand and confess the negative impact of their own design on the user. The documentary directs towards the need for a paradigm shift - to educate the user to enable positive change in society.
What to post? and how to perceive the content? as a user- this does not lie in the domain of the designer. The documentary comes forth as a statutory warning (similar to a cigarette/tobacco case) - ‘Doom scrolling is injurious to mental health’. Now, it is onto the user of these platforms to take it or leave it… should we wait for technology to bring this change for us or should we take a step towards this change?
I think it is upon us to set the limits for ourselves, to not lose control of how we want to network and utilize our time.
What do you say?
ELLISON, N. B. & DANAH BOYD 2013. Sociality through Social Network Sites. In The Oxford Handbook of Internet Studies (ed) W. H. Dutton, 151–172. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
KAPLAN, A. M. & M. HAENLEIN 2010. Users of the world, unite! The challenges and opportunities of Social Media. Business Horizons 53, 59–68.
Image sources: Netflix
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