Review of ‘The Social Dilemma’

Photo by Rami Al-zayat on Unsplash

A few days ago I had the opportunity to watch this documentary from Netflix directed by Jeff Orlowski. Four days later there was a panel organised by the Data Science Institute from Columbia University. He was part of it discussing his production and confessed it was the first time he was diving in the social media topic. The film has been watched by millions of households across the globe.

The documentary combines fiction and interviews from people who worked in digital companies such as Facebook, Google and Pinterest. The interest of James Orlowski for this subject started when he met one of the guests: Tristan Harris, former Google’s employee. In my opinion it is a good sum-up of what is happening at the moment with social media and how money drives the industry to recommend us posts for a longer use of their platform.

Some of the critiques that the documentary received are related for example to the lack of diversity on the people Orlowski interviewed (mostly white men from FANGs) and you can’t see the consequences of algorithms on real people. It’s true the cast of interviewees was very white, but this is how tech staff is so I think it was showing the real representation of the ecosystem. The film didn’t include specific problems related with data that other experts are claiming such as algorithm bias and unethical practices, but the director wanted to give space to other productions like Coded Bias from Shalini Kantayya where Joy Boulamwini exposes the danger of a bad face recognition system.

The film doesn’t give solutions to the problems that explains. It is something the director wanted to avoid as he was criticized in his previous documentaries when he did it. They were described as propaganda. For him the goal was to bring into the surface a subject that people from the industry might know, but not the entire society. Many people have changed their point of view regarding of their consuming necessity of social media. For him there’s a problem when a person is not able to explain why they’re using A or B platforms. In his opinion it’s a symptom that the individual has a problem with social networks.

It was odd to see that once the film finished Netflix was recommending me another program to watch. It was scary to see this because they talked a lot about the recommendation system of platforms like Twitter and Facebook based on our data. My behavior changed a bit in terms of how I use social networks. I try to be more conscious of the time I spend and what I do. I am even thinking of disconnecting once per week of all kind of networks just to see how it feels without them and reduce my consumption.

It’s clear there’s still a lot of work to do in this field. It’s important the point of view of data scientists, engineers and others in changing realities or at least in showing that a better option is possible without harming anyone. As Jeff Orlowski said, we must fight against the climate change of social media.



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Oyidiya Oji

Digital Rights With an Anti-racist and Social Justice Perspective | Advocacy | Research | Facilitation | Curious Learning Enthusiast | @oyidiyaoji