A global pandemic. Social unrest. A presidential election. Now a Supreme Court confirmation. A perfect storm if ever there was one. Never before have I seen the country so divided over such a confluence of events, and never before have I seen such tremendous stress placed upon our collective workplace and individual mental health. I see it in my family, my friends, my neighbors, and even my employees.
With this in mind, I sat down over the weekend to watch a new Netflix documentary called The Social Dilemma. Frequent readers of this blog know that I've never really used it in the past to recommend a particular piece of media, except for some excellent Ted Talks related to the workplace and others tangentially related to employee benefits.
Nevertheless, I found The Social Dilemma so riveting, so concerning, and so timely, that I feel compelled to recommend that everyone sit down with their families and watch this film. In fact, I'm asking my entire workforce to do just the same.
This documentary cuts between "conscientious Silicon Valley defectors" from Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and Google to sound the alarm about the incursion of data mining and manipulative technology into our social lives and beyond.
Like almost any form of media, these products were created to gain audiences, and to gain share of mind. Each competes for our most valuable commodity – our attention. This started hundreds of years ago with public speakers in the town square, then newspapers and television, then the internet, and now with social media.
Yet unlike those previous forms of media, social networks came into existence at a time when they could harness an incredible amount of instantaneous user data. And as this documentary makes clear, we are suffering through consequences that have come about through the extreme efficiency and machine learning characteristics of these platforms.
Take the Facebook "Like" button. As the creator of the feature mentions in the film, its only intention was to "spread positivity and love in the world". Yet, as we all know, most teens (and some adults) have come to depend on "Likes" as validation and social currency, with depression setting in when those aspirations aren't realized. (In fact, the rise in suicide rates amongst teens and young adults is staggering when tracked alongside the growth of social media.)
Without trying to explain too much of the film, most of the subjects interviewed claim that the manipulation of human behavior for profit is coded into these social platforms; from infinite scrolling and push notifications that keep users constantly engaged, to personalized recommendations that harness data not just to predict but also to influence our actions. This, in turn, makes social media users easy prey for advertisers and propagandists.
And while some of this isn't too dissimilar from what's happening at Amazon – e.g. getting us to look at more and more products while gathering data to predict our shopping behavior – it's quite another thing to harness algorithms to serve up personalized counterfeit news that reinforces our beliefs, immerses us in alternative realities, and helps foster conspiracy theories.
The most urgent question posed by "The Social Dilemma" is whether our very own democracy can survive how social networks' are now used – by all sides - to blur fact and fiction. As one of the main subjects of the film states, "Imagine a world where no one believes what's true." With faith in our institutions at all-time lows, it isn't that hard to imagine. It seems like we're here.
Critics of this documentary are sure to point out the hyperbolic emphasis on social media as the one and only culprit of our current state of affairs. And while I'll concede that the increase in mental illness, our tribal divisions, and our waning faith in institutions is due to a multitude of factors, it would be remiss of us to ignore the impact of social media on all three.
So as not to end on a sour note, the interviewees in "The Social Dilemma" are not all doom and gloom. Many suggest that with the right changes, social media can be harnessed for good, while neutralizing the bad, but it will take work.
As a parent, I for one, have taken the message of this film to heart. While I've never been a heavy user of social media, I'm curtailing my usage even more, and I'm encouraging my kids to do the same. As far as my employees are concerned, I don't quite hold the same sway over them as I do my young children ;) but I am doing my best to spread the word about this film and the importance of workplace mental health. To that end I’m reminding them of our policy on discussing politics in the workplace and our social media usage guidelines.
The Social Dilemma is streaming on Netflix, where, quite paradoxically, it was suggested to me by their data-based algorithm ;) I hope you'll take the time to check it out.
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