‘The Social Dilemma’ Is Both Powerful and Forgettable
Netflix's new doc treads on pretty familiar ground
The Social Dilemma is one of the latest Netflix Original documentaries to be released by the platform. In many ways, it feels like an unofficial prequel to The Great Hack, another anti-social media documentary by Netflix. Unlike its predecessor, however, The Social Dilemma largely fails as an educational tool. It offers up surprisingly little in terms of new information and instead relies far more heavily on an overly-dramatic short story. This may not be the most informative documentary in the world, but that’s not to say it doesn’t have something to offer.
The Social Dilemma explores one seemingly straightforward premise. Users of social media are not customers. They are the product. Whenever Facebook changes its layout or Twitter updates its tools, this is often viewed as a benefit to the user. In reality, it’s simply allowing higher levels of manipulation to take place by increasing the amount of time you spend on a screen. This documentary interviews employees from some of the Big Tech companies (Google, Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, etc.) to discover exactly what is wrong with social media today.
An Introduction to The Social Dilemma
If I may leap into an assumption, I’d say that most of the people who choose to watch The Social Dilemma will have some knowledge of social media manipulation from other sources. Maybe they watched The Great Hack, another documentary, or simply keep up to date with how our data is being used and manipulated by Big Tech companies. Assuming that is indeed the case, The Social Dilemma doesn’t offer much up as far as new information is concerned. Many of us are fully aware of how our data is being used against us, we just don’t care enough to change.
This is a documentary that seems to try so hard to avoid delving into anything technical that it actually avoids anything of substance. It’s an introductory course to what is happening with your data, but that’s it. In many ways, The Social Dilemma feels far too similar to those warning videos you’d be shown in school to make you aware of the dangers of drugs or unsafe sex. Perhaps unsurprisingly, this documentary makes use of equally as cringy storytelling. But more on that in a moment.
By the time The Social Dilemma ends, there isn’t a feeling of having learned anything. Yes, it does serve as a solid introduction to social media manipulation. But that leads to a simple question. How many people (who are completely unaware of how social media data is used) would choose to watch this documentary? This is something that is likely true with most documentaries. How many people who are wholly comfortable with eating meat choose to watch Earthlings or Cowspiracy? We often turn to a documentary because some aspect of it appeals to us. On that point alone, The Social Dilemma fails at playing to its audience.
The Social Dilemma is More Dramatization than Documentary
My first thought after watching The Social Dilemma was straightforward. What I had watched wasn’t a documentary, but rather the dramatization of one. The documentary mostly consists of interviews with individuals heavily involved in the social media industry. Granted, about 25% of each interview is the person sitting down and getting into position. But, between each sub-topic, we’re shown an aspect of social media manipulation or addiction in practice. This storytelling takes place within a family environment, where every character is over the top and unrealistic. The outcome of each story is entirely possible, but the way it’s told feels hollow and artificial.
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