The Social Dilemma: flawed, but important

The Social Dilemma, a recently-released documentary on the dangers of social media, has taken a lot of heat on Twitter.  Much of the criticism comes from the research community but these people are really not the intended audience for the film.  The film advocates and raises awareness targeted at the general public and, despite its flaws, it serves an important role in highlighting the dangers of social media.

The film tells its story primarily from the perspective of the technology workers that built social media and are now regretting what they’ve done.  The exclusion of other voices is the film’s greatest flaw.  Others saw the dangers from the beginning and the film does not feature these people.  Ultimately it is those who built social media that are seen to be the heroes.  While some are now trying to improve things, the focus on their perspective perpetuates a narrative that only they could have identified the problems, when reality is different.

In an intertwined problem, there is a lack of diversity in the film.  This is especially unfortunate in an industry with such history of racism and sexism.  Mozilla provides a great list of diverse voices that would have enriched the perspective that the film offers.

There are also prominent voices making other sorts of criticism.  Although we need more research to truly understand the harm social media causes to our societies, we have adequate evidence to be concerned and push for greater transparency from social media companies.  Of course other media platforms can also host harmful content and there is a long history of media being used to manipulate, but the scale and effectiveness (through data-driven targeting) of modern social media are a fundamentally new danger.  The film doesn’t prove anything, but that’s not its place, it raises awareness, advocating for greater caution while using social media and greater pressure on social media companies to provide data to enable researchers to understand the problem.

The film effectively communicates the broad strokes of the problem for a general audience, covering themes including the decay of shared truth and the misaligned incentives at play.  I won’t go into detail here, but recommend watching the film or reading my other blog posts.  I especially liked the metaphor described in the film of how algorithmic manipulation can “tilt the floor” – people are still free to walk to whatever part of the room they want to, but more of them are going to end up on the downhill side.  This is a great metaphor for how populations can be effectively manipulated even if each individual still has the freedom to make their own choices – perhaps a better explanation than I wrote in a previous post.

So, yes, the film is imperfect, but I expect it will do good, perhaps less so for the research community, rather in conversations at dinner tables around the world.

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