“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.