The Social Dilemma Review: Insightful, interesting and illuminating
This Netflix docu-drama fills in details to what was earlier just a dark, ominous silhouette that somehow stalks our lives without us realising
It is easy to get lost in the Internet. It is no new revelation that the Internet, especially social media, can act like a sponge that absorbs your time. It starts with one notification, but you end up scrolling for hours, staring at a screen, addicted, even if you’re not excited by what you’re seeing. For a while, I have been wary of the time I spend online. I had timers on my social media apps, to ensure I don’t while away all my time on it. And suddenly, my day opened up and I didn’t know what to do with it. No matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t keep from reaching for my phone. How had I spent all those years without the Internet, or a phone?
Director: Jeff Orlowski
Cast: Skyler Gisondo, Kara Hayward, Vincent Kartheiser, Tristan Harris, Sophia Hammons
Streaming On: Netflix
This is the problem that Netflix’s new documentary, The Social Dilemma, helps us comprehend. It doesn’t stop with just addiction, but percolates deeper into the way we think and behave. New clothes? Hello Instagram. A new restaurant? Time for a Facebook check-in. What social media has done is alter the way we live our lives. This illuminating film digs deep into why this seemingly harmless habit is more ominous than it appears and how Internet companies are ‘selling their users, their attention’ to advertisers. Again, this is no new revelation. But The Social Dilemma fills in details to what was earlier just a dark, ominous silhouette that somehow stalks our lives without us realising.
The Social Dilemma is constructed with the testimonials of various programmers, tech designers, engineers, and other experts who have been involved in creating the ubiquitous products we use today like Gmail, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Pinterest, etc. At the very start, they are asked a question: What is the problem here? The question is answered with a few moments of silence, that screams ‘Where do I begin?’ What follows is a beautiful breakdown of the multi-layered problems in what these platforms have mutated into: ‘marketplaces that exclusively trade in human features’.
How we are being manipulated into being glued to a screen? What effects do the likes and shares have on our psyche? How do the companies profit from these? Why is this ethically wrong? How does this consistent manipulation erode our social fabric? The Social Dilemma has answers for all of this. The number of non-fatal self-harm (hospitalised patients) cases in American pre-teen girls has nearly tripled from 2009. As the documentary puts it, ‘A whole generation is more fragile, more depressed, anxious, less comfortable taking risks’ with ‘digital pacifiers’. And then there are the political ramifications and far-reaching effects of populism. One of the experts says, “If you want to control the population of a country, there has never been a tool as effective as Facebook.” It does feel like a ‘checkmate on humanity’.
But the documentary does remind us that there is a good side to all of this. As it notes, ‘it is simultaneous utopia and dystopia’. Irony hits us in the face when the co-inventor of the Facebook ‘like’ button shares that the goal was to ‘spread love and positivity’. Nobody expected it to mutate as it has. To bring ‘social doom’ isn’t exactly what anyone had in mind, but it is now at our windows, covering them with propaganda-stained curtains.
Documentaries used to be considered ‘boring’, and not always accessible to the general public. Netflix has been a game-changer in several ways, but its biggest contribution, in my opinion, is making documentaries mainstream. The Social Dilemma is a well-made documentary too. Often, the speaker is placed in the corners of the frame, not looking at the camera as they speak. The camera captures the space around them. It is time we begin to look at the background, and not just at what is in the spotlight. In a way, this is the opposite of how social media holds our attention. The Social Dilemma is also edited with flair, seamlessly intertwining various testimonials to form a gripping narrative. (It also has a fictional parallel that wasn’t quite necessary, but does add value at certain places.)
You might know a lot of this already. What The Social Dilemma does is illustrate the mechanism in great detail, adding meat to the conversation. Like most interviewees admit in the documentary, all this information doesn’t make you immune to the charms of social media. The tech isn’t going anywhere. This review will be shared on social media. I took several ‘phone breaks’ while writing this review. This documentary will be spoken about on social media. But what it is, is a reminder to take it more seriously and manage our online habits cautiously. If you have a social media account, then make sure you watch The Social Dilemma.