Netflix ‘The Social Dilemma is a chilling must-see


‘If you don’t pay for the product, am you the product ‘, says Tristan Harris, former Google employee in the new Netflix documentary The Social Dilemma. It’s a statement we’ve heard before. Facebook, Instagram, TikTok, even Google – all those supposedly great services that keep us entertained, help us connect with others, looking things up for us – of course they do it for nothing. They make billions from us! Generally known.

Yet it is shocking to see several former employees of all those services – think: the people who wrote the algorithms and the designers who came up with the like button. The Social Dilemma explain how this works exactly. And how far it goes. Especially because it is so terribly confrontational.

“Everything is carefully kept,” says Jeff Seibert, former manager at Twitter. ‘Which image you look at, how long you look at it. Yes, seriously: how long you look at it. ‘ Facebook, Gmail, Twitter, all these services know everything, he says. ‘Whether you are lonely or depressed. They know when you look at pictures of your ex. They know what you’re doing late at night. ‘ And if that wasn’t scary enough, all this information is being used against you.

The other side of the screen

The latter goes much further than most people think. “A lot of people think that it is our data that is being sold,” he says Aza Raskin who previously worked at Firefox and Mozilla Lab. ‘It is not interesting for Facebook to sell our data.’ Instead, he says, imagine there is some sort of Avatar-esque model of you on the other side of your phone screen. This model is the sum of everything you have ever viewed, what likes you got and gave, what you looked up. This is fine-tuned all the time to better predict what you should be presented with to keep you scrolling for as long as possible. Because the longer you scroll, the more you view and the more you are worth to advertisers. Using your data goes much further than Google, which passes your search for white sneakers to companies that sell white sneakers, so that you suddenly see advertisements for white sneakers everywhere. Your data is used to make you addicted to your phones. Because scrolling gives you money.

The documentary explains the latter on the basis of a somewhat creepy segment in which the algorithm is played by Mad Menactor Vincent Kartheiser. He stands behind a control panel in triplicate and regulates with his buttons what a teenage boy encounters while scrolling his feed. An epic-fail skateboard movie, followed by a sneaker commercial and the photos of that girl whose updates he always likes. The boy scrolls and scrolls. If the boy is away from his phone for a while, the panel quickly sends a notification to get him back online. “Your ex has a new relationship.” “You are tagged in a photo.”

The entire segment, including the control panel, must have been inspired by the animation film Inside Out. Only instead of keeping good memories or warning us about something we might stumble over, the only purpose of the men behind the buttons is to keep the human on the screen. As long as possible.

Slots in Vegas

And they do that with the help of psychology. Our feed, every report, has been developed in such a way that every time we get shots of dopamine (A like! A picture of that nice boy! Shoes!) And so we want to keep going. Every time we refresh our feed, we get to see something new. So we keep refreshing. When someone tags us on Facebook, we immediately receive an email. And while it would have been much more user-friendly to share the photo in the email, we have to click through to Facebook – where we’ll probably hang around again because other things grab our attention. Harris compares our phones to the slots in Las Vegas. ‘Every time you see it, you know it might have something for you. So you play that slot machine. ‘

The system works so well that even the former boss of Pinterest Tim Kendall admits that a few years ago he didn’t play with his young children after work, but instead checked his emails in the pantry and surfed on Pinterest. Even though he knew exactly how the sausage was made.

Impossible beauty ideals and fake news

The fact that thanks to this addiction we spend hours looking at a screen, without actually getting anything in return, is not the only and not even the greatest danger of social media, says The Social Dilemma in the second half of the documentary. Social media has caused an enormous increase in depression, self-harm, eating disorders and suicides among teenage girls. The ‘ideal’, totally edited image that we share of ourselves on social media throughout the day creates a distorted self-image. For impossible beauty ideals. And so for a lot of insecurity among girls (and boys, probably) who are already in an uncertain, crazy stage of life. Although I am guessing that not only teenagers suffer from this.

In addition, social media is an unprecedented catalyst for fake news and conspiracy theories. “Fake news on social media spreads six times faster than real news,” says Harris. Not by accident, but on purpose. Because the system is so developed. Because fake news makes companies more money: “The truth is boring.” Hence, a story about a pedophile network that would be run from the basement of a pizzeria (Pizzagate) could reach many more people than the messages in which this story was completely bunked. This is because, for example, Facebook served ‘Pizzagate’ unasked to anyone who had ever searched for anti-vaccinations or chemtrails, and thus seemed susceptible to conspiracy theories. Which eventually led to an armed man storming the pizzeria to ‘free the children’.

Gap between population groups

Where social media was once developed to bring people into contact with each other, the constantly evolved algorithm creates social media bubbles. As a result, the gap between entire population groups worldwide has become wider than ever. Just look at the Republicans and Democrats in America. Or to the corona deniers and normal people in the Netherlands. Because these groups only see their own ideas and beliefs confirmed time and again in their bubbles, they really don’t understand how the other group can think what they think. It is frightening that this misunderstanding seems to be increasingly leading to violence, certainly in recent months. Former Pinterest man Kendall says he genuinely fears civil war if things don’t change quickly.

The Social Dilemma is all in all horrifying. And an unmistakable warning from the people who helped make social media so influential and now genuinely fear for the future. “We made these things and we have a responsibility to change them,” Harris says. When asked whether the companies will ever adjust their highly lucrative business model to make it more human, he says simply: they will have to.

The documentary is unlikely to change minds among Silicon Valley CEOs. The Mark Zuckerbergs of the world have long known what their product does and why. But hopefully the documentary will contribute to the collective awareness of what social media does to us, the users. How dependent it makes us. How divided we become because of it. Maybe enough people will rebel to force change. Personally, since I saw the documentary, at least I can’t open my phone without realizing that I’m being used. And I have to say; it makes scrolling a lot less fun. Still, I recommend you to The Social Dilemma watch tonight, and force all your friends to do it too. Just maybe not via Twitter.

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