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The Social Dilemma

The Social Dilemma

Jeff Orlowski, director
Exposure Labs
93 minutes

“There are only two industries that call their customers ‘users’: illegal drugs and software.” This provocative observation, attributed to Yale computer scientist Edward Tufte, hits home in The Social Dilemma, as former executives from Facebook, Pinterest, Google, Twitter, and YouTube describe how they built online platforms to attract and reward our attention, with the goal of packaging and selling it to advertisers.

Just as illegal drugs hijack and overwhelm pleasure circuits in the brain, which evolved to help us survive, social media hijacks and overwhelms our pro-survival instinct to seek social connection. As the film’s primary voice, Tristan Harris (formerly of Google), notes: “We evolved to care whether other people in our tribe think well of us or not, because it matters. But we were not evolved to be aware of what 10,000 people think of us; we were not evolved to have social approval dosed to us every 5 minutes.” Harris and others are now raising concerns about how social media is changing how we perceive ourselves, other people, and even objective reality.

Through interviews interleaved with a narrative movie-within-a-movie, whose scenes will be familiar to anyone who has ever tried to impose a “no phones at the table” rule, the documentary describes how and why social media evolved to attract and keep our attention by gathering massive amounts of information about each of us and then using that information to target specific content to our feeds to keep us engaged. The interviewees link increases in teen self-harm and suicide, political and social polarization and isolation, outrage and self-centeredness, and even flat-Earth conspiracy theories to algorithms whose function is not necessarily to provide us with what we want or what is good for us, but to keep us scrolling and clicking. These themes are carried through the fictional narrative as well, with varying success.

The Social Dilemma

One of the film’s most striking interviews is with Tim Kendall, who, as director of monetization in the early days of Facebook, conceived of selling advertising to make it profitable and then helped tune the news feed to maintain engagement through intermittent positive reinforcement (“like slot machines in Vegas”). He describes how, despite knowing that he was being manipulated, he would find himself hiding in his pantry, ignoring his family, just to spend time on social media. Kendall—like the film’s other subjects—has since had a change of heart. He is now CEO of Moment, a company whose app helps people spend less time on their phones.

About the author

Division of Biological Sciences and Christopher S. Bond Life Sciences Center, University of Missouri, Columbia, MO 65211, USA