“The Social Dilemma”– Addiction or Threat?

This is a  Netflix docudrama not to be missed.  The Social Dilemma  a  granular investigation of the rise of social media and the  ongoing damage it is causing to segments of society around the globe, is chilling.  Focusing on exploitation of Internet  users, The Social Dilemma, produced by Jeff Orlowski, reveals how  most users are oblivious about how their surfing patterns have been monetized. We are all   highly valuable assets being sold for financial gain.  The user ‘s data is sold to advertisers through embedded algorithms.  The advertisers are the real customers of the social media giants.   Just follow the money.  Do we pay to use Facebook? Who does?  

The business model has been designed to create an addiction:  from maintaining “eyeballs”  from the three  bouncing balls the user sees while  waiting for  an incoming text to the “Like” and “hearts” buttons  which cause warm feelings validating the individual’s status and self-worth.  The content associated with the eyeballs (or “traction”) is then catalogued according to preferences, biases, and behavioral patterns to enable efficient data-mining.    Throughout The Social Dilemma, a teenager’s social-media addiction is dramatized with actors playing the roles of the naive young users being controlled by powerful algorithms structured by artificial intelligence.  The teenagers don’t stand a chance of ever detoxing.

That social media can be addictive and threatening isn’t news to anyone who uses Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and LinkedIn (Isn’t that most of us?).  But the most disturbing and pernicious aspect of Jeff Orlowski’s documentary is that the system is designed structurally to gather BigBrother information for profit.  That is the  business model.

An advertising mecca results.  In the hands of companies like Facebook and Twitter, the ads can be tailored to the potential customer’s taste.  Social media platforms’ use in politics, their effect on mental health and their role in spreading conspiracy theories  can and has undermined the stability of communities.

With Machiavellian precision,  the psychology of social media is at the cellular level.  Users want to be with the same tribe (blocking those who disagree), because that is a primordial imperative for survival.    Infinite scrolling and push notifications designed to feed information that the  users want to believe keeps us constantly addicted.  And this  personalized “data” not just  predicts but influences our actions.  Our world is thus re-created by the clickbait the largest social media companies predict we’re most comfortable seeing.  This is confirmation bias at its most extreme.  Advertisers and political propagandists are delivered the prey they earnestly seek with increasing accuracy.

To turn social media into some sort of Frankenstein for the digital age is too simplistic.  Social media can be an incredibly valuable tool for fact-finding, for mobilization of people’s good will and for efficient dissemination of news. However, what is dangerous in The Social Dilemma is how the tech experts (who were instrumental in developing the algorithms for Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram) are themselves deeply alarmed by how  positive social changes can suddenly and dramatically be hijacked,   morphing into changes that are nefarious and incendiary. 

Similar to how television was eventually regulated for its intrusion upon children’s minds for commercial success, The Social Dilemma raises the question: what can be done now that the genie is out of the bottle?  One answer proposed is that user information be treated as a taxable asset. Undoubtedly tech  companies would pass on the cost of the taxes causing advertisers to buy less..  Congress is now holding hearings on the monopolistic nature of the mega social media corporations, but The Social Dilemma hovers more closely to the specter of human engineering in the hands of potentially ruthless agents. Compliance and regulation are long overdue.

Truly eye-opening and disturbing.

Availability:  The Social Dilemma premiered at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival and was released on Netflix on September 9, 2020.

Ingrid Goes West–Don’t Tag Along

Ingrid Goes West

Social media can evoke strong feelings. There have been a number of critically acclaimed plays, movies, and television series dealing with the impact of social media, mostly negative, and primarily associated with depression (which social scientific research currently validates). Examples aren’t hard to find: “13 Reasons Why”, “Dear Evan Hansen”, one episode from “Black Mirror”. Ingrid Goes West can be added to this growing subgenre.

An unhinged social media stalker, Ingrid Thorburn (comically and poignantly played by Aubrey Plaza of “Parks and Recreation”), is a social outcast looking for a BFF. She discovers the virtual life of Taylor Sloane (Elizabeth Olsen), an Instagram “star”, whose perfect virtual lifestyle becomes Ingrid’s latest obsession. So Ingrid decides to leave her boring life behind and move to LA. What ensues is at times hilarious with satirical insights for our media-crazed world.

The themes in Ingrid Goes West are obvious and one-dimensional: social media is an illusionary world, narcissistic (Trump, anyone?) and better than it seems. Yet, Ingrid’s pathological need for attention and social acceptance are believable, especially from a vulnerable 20-something woman. No one is likable in Ingrid Goes West, especially Ingrid. But I wanted to have empathy for Ingrid’s flawed character: she displays total disregard for right and wrong. Ingrid has little remorse for her actions, and less compassion for others.

Ingrid Goes West leaves this viewer wondering how far would we go to fit in to a group we consider important for our well-being. How far would you go to be accepted or consent to be manipulated?

The angst that engulfs Ingrid is seen in her face, her body language, the way she obsesses. Desperate to distract herself from who she really is for who she wants people to think she is,   social media filters her life choices with the imaginary friends usually associated with very young children.

The satire of Ingrid Goes West has become a bit of a fault line. Those inclined to think scrolling through your phone is anti-social, may think Ingrid Goes West is vapid Tweeting.  But I looked at it as a takedown of hashtags, Instagram pics, “likes” and emojis. It’s perhaps more accurate to call this movie a critique of human behavior and the social media’s impact on all of us, an impact we don’t fully understand yet, since the technology is new but ubiquitous. The insidiousness of social media can turn toxic. Additionally, Facebok, Instagram, and Twitter can hold up a mirror to us and a metric for not only vanity but for community and what constitutes it.

 

Note:  As of this writing, Ingrid Goes West is playing in theaters nationwide.

 

 

Facebook and the Internet–Let’s Face It

Facebook logo

A lot of online social networking sites, Facebook and Twitter in particular, rest on the human need for connection. For letting people into your life, no matter how insignificant the post may be.  Still,   regardless of how inane the post may be, it’s still not the same as being there.  There is no intimacy or sensory experience involved.  Only reading.  There is FaceTime,  a more intimate connection than the  phone time. And why is that? FaceTime provides hearing and visual pleasure at the same time. It is because, since we were babes in arms, the face and the  sensory experiences of taste, smell, touch, and hearing come in to play for a  primal sense of intimacy we all cannot live without.

For some Facebook and Twitter users I feel there is a  kind of a loneliness in which we post our lives in hopes that others will “like” or respond in kind. In which the “Friends” validate one’s existence.  Or at least, relieve the boredom of daily life.   To some users Facebook can be like a drug–heightening a need that is never completely fulfilled, requiring more “likes”, more “friends”, more comments.  Is that why I have to set the timer to make sure I don’t spend the entire day on Internet in a virtual time suck?

In a time when even the smallest thought or feeling must be shouted out and displayed to the world, the idea of what constitutes a friend has been dramatically changed.  How can one have 1000 friends?  Don’t we mean “followers”, and even that  has a marketing or self-promoting connotation.  No wonder every business has to have a Facebook “presence”.

The Internet doesn’t actually offer any of us  a true sense of friendship–but more a  pamphleteering of events for the community.  In this sense Facebook, Twitter, blogging and other social media are phenomenal means to getting the word out about news, great and small, in an individual’s life.  Maybe reading that post will result in a phone call or even something as extraordinary as a visit. Let’s just remember that the more we rely on social media as a substitute for human connection, the more we are actually doing the opposite:  isolating ourselves from the very thing we want. Friendship still has to be cultivated the old-fashioned way and by definition, no one has one thousand friends.  I’m waiting to be the exception.  Where are my thousand true FB friends?

 

Social Networking–A Mixed Bag of Tricks

I received so many public and private comments from readers about my last post on Internet usage (see “The Current Digital Divide”–Instant Gratification Anyone?), that I started to think some more about how social networks have transformed our lives.  People (yours truly included) are spending more and more time on the computer. I set a timer so I don’t spend all day in one never-ending time-suck glued to the computer either web-surfing or social networking.  For discipline’s sake, I look at Facebook only once every other day or so.

I do agree with social network supporters that Facebook, LinkedIn, and a host of more specialized websites not only promote increased communication with friends and family but open new information resources– lesser-known websites, highly specialized associations, and political forums.  Besides the oft-mentioned dangers of exposing the vulnerable to predators and other criminals, or bemoaning the loss of literacy or longer attention spans, there are benefits to using the social networking tools we have available.

One of the most surprising articles I read this summer (Wall Street Journal, “Could Those Hours Online Be Making Kids Nicer?”, August 16, 2011) is a case in point.   Researchers have found that those who have difficulty communicating in person, especially teenagers, are more comfortable interacting via the Internet.  They are not using digital communication to reach out primarily to strangers, but to interact more frequently with those they already know but may feel shy around in face-to-face situations.

The WSJ article implies that empathy and likability increase among young social networkers, even towards those less self-confident and with low self-esteem.  Perhaps more significantly, Internet users are retaining their offline friendships, not replacing them.  Among social outliers, the Internet can increase a  sense of community and belonging.

This made me reflect on how I personally use social networking and email.  I can communicate at off-times–meaning late at night–since I am a night-owl.  That way the early birds can read my email or Facebook while I am still dreaming.  I can send an announcement–for example, a new blog post–to friends and acquaintances with one message, not hundreds. Digital communication also saves me time –a telephone conversation is more fun, video-chatting even more of a blast–but both take much, much longer.  If I am just too frazzled, an email or Facebook message is “better than nothing” and that is fundamentally the motivation behind the less personal means of saying something I really want to say.  Just like snail-mail, before the invention of email, the telephone call has now graduated way up the “food-chain” to having major impact on the receiver of the call as a very personal effort to talk.

However, what if I had trouble expressing myself in person or on the phone?  Would chatting in a chat room be more relaxing, more of my true feelings and opinions, than face-to-face?

Although social networking sites were created to make money, not to improve peoples’ lives, they have changed the landscape of how people relate to each other and there is no going back. Future political and social movements will undoubtedly use these tools to a significant degree difficult to imagine now.  These powerful new technologies are changing  the way we live, but not always in ways that everyone likes.

I am by nature an optimist, believing that the disadvantages of social networking will be filtered out over time and benefits will emerge for users who apply these tools with common sense. But in the early stages of any new technology, the buyer must beware. World-tilting technologies (think automobile, airplanes, telephone, television, computer) do not have predictable and absolute positive or negative effects. Social networking is just such a mixed bag of tricks.