The title ‘Social Dilemma’ of the increasingly popular Netflix docudrama, perfectly captures the widespread social predicament which society currently faces: the increasing awareness that instant communication and social networking is having increasing control over our choices, and a detrimental impact on our overall psychology. This isn’t exactly news that we are over-reliant on social media. Social media is framed as ruining the millennial and Gen Z generations and leading to a mental health epidemic. It’s no wonder our generation becomes avid advocates of digital detoxes – I’ve personally had periods of what I like to call “mindful social media usage”. I’ve cleared out certain apps, reduced my phone usage before bedtime and made sure I read a book (rather than scroll through my phone) on the train to work.
With a gloomy tone that looms throughout, we are left feeling we are living in some sort of dystopian reality, as if we’re sleepwalking through reality like zombies, controlled through a series of puppet strings. In this (depressingly) honest 90-minute hybrid of drama and documentary, a panel of tech experts get candidly honest about the dangerous knee-jerk impacts of their own innovative creations (oh, the irony). Doing so, they make our modern social dilemma explicit, showing that while social networking websites connect us, they correspondingly disconnect and control us at the same time. Shining the torch on the ‘dark side’ of social networking, they expose our 21st century social as threatened, as our powers, civil liberties, psychology and consumer choices are increasingly under threat. In brief, this is because we live in a society of ‘surveillance capitalism’ where our personal data has been commodified, for the sole purpose of profit-making. Brands tap into the algorithmic technology provided by big tech giants like Facebook, Instagram and Pinterest to follow our every move, over time building an accurate model on our individual tastes, interests, networks and desires. Rather than simply selling data onto big brands, what brands are really paying for is the ability to manipulate and exploit us as they predict and control what we do and who we think we are (jeez, pass me the bottle of red).
It leaves viewers like myself questioning our ability to live as completely ‘free’ consumers, exercising total liberty and freedom of choice. It also got me into questioning whether we are living authentic and value-driven lives, or whether are we manipulated consumers solely shaped by the content we read online, pre-packaged and delivered to us. And with that, are we just hard programmed robots who…ok, I wouldn’t go that far to say we are robots, but there is something to be said about the extent of our agency and control we have in our personal choices.
“It is the gradual, slight, imperceptible change in your own behaviour and perception that is the product”
The fact that choices are inevitably shaped and curated by powerful marketing campaigns is not a new phenomenon, but social media’s power to tweak, alter and influence our choices at a deeper psychological level is. The instant nature of social networking sites, means that the transmission of information and influence on us as consumers, all takes place in real-time. The AI technology embedded within apps such as Facebook and Twitter, picks up that I just researched the health benefits of lemon water and five minutes later, BAM! I’m bombarded with Amazon ads telling me I want to purchase a book on healthy eating and want to purchase a series of vitamins from ‘Holland & Barrett’. And no, I didn’t get swindled into buying a £13.00 hardback from Waterstones. But what if I had? Would that have been a genuine ‘free’ choice being exercised? Or would that have been a purchasing choice I was made to believe was my very own choice, but was in fact carefully curated by the clever little algorithm which predicted that if I research the health benefits of lemon water, I must be a overly health-conscious individual. The same holds true when it comes to holiday decision-making. After one curious online search into a city break in Madrid, I am overwhelmed by advertisements showing me glorious photos of the city, accompanied by a direct link to a last minute deal where I can stay in a 4 star hotel at a commendable rate. Thirty minutes later I eagerly told my family “I’ve booked a solo trip to Madrid!” (only for it to be cancelled last minute due to COVID-19).
This isn’t to say we don’t exercise free choice in some capacity – I certainly wouldn’t go and purchase a golf club that my brother was searching on the same computer the night before and which Facebook is now spreading across my feed. We also have ever-expanding choices of goods and services at our disposal, meaning we have tons of choices at our very fingertips. However, the balance of power between consumers and brands has shifted and the traditional purchasing journey disrupted. Through online marketing ads, a more targeted selection process means my consumer journey is subject to interruptions, diversions and delays. As I look for some interior design inspiration, I am distracted by a competing interior design brand glorifying its unaffordable luxurious sofa, but which I am now partly convinced to buy.
So, if our choices are manipulated and shaped by the tech giants and their algorithmic puppet strings, doesn’t that ultimately mean they shape who we are as individuals? Shifting our micro perceptions and behaviours at a macro population level, companies can fork out millions of pounds to ultimately convince entire communities to think and behave in the way that the launch of the FitBit needs us to – that incessantly tracking your steps, heart rate, sleep and calories burned per day is a core requirement to obtaining long-term health (I personally am not convinced). I don’t believe FitBits were created with bad intent, in fact I think they’re widely beneficial. Yet, what is slightly alarming is when brand owners pay millions of pounds to fear many into thinking that forking out £150 on a FitBit will equate to health, playing into many people’s fears and insecurities. Even those who are not typically impressionable to conspiracy theories such as ‘Pizza Gate’ and ‘Flat Earth theory’ can get swayed by "fake news", seemingly dressed-up to appear as true and authentic.
Demonstrating this power of social networking sites on our choices, does leave me scratching my head questioning whether we are therefore truly authentic and value-driven lives. Perhaps if I wasn’t bombarded with ten other pilates YouTube videos after trying it out on a whim once, I would have hit the stop button on this new hobby three months ago. But by the very virtue of being re-delivered the content after displaying one moment of intent, here I am four months later doing the same videos, ordering the gear (with some idea) and trying to convince my friends that pilates “is like sooo good for you!”
Technology has become pretty much entangled into our everyday relationships, where finding out what your friend ordered at the local kebab hot spot the night before is communicated to you through a picture on a group WhatsApp chat. Hearing from, and even the act of meeting up, with family and friends has shifted to online mediums thanks to the rise of relentless group chats which predominantly consist of exchanging memes, videos and giphs with others. Video call functionality means I can vent about my long day at work to my brother, all whilst seeing his face (and him regularly showing me his new puppy). Intimacy and human-to-human interactions have been replaced with quickly curated written five word messages and five minute video calls, having both positive and negative effects on human relationships: whilst it enables us to connect with people at a distance, it disconnects people at a short distance. The incentive to go see a friend who lives a few minutes down the road can seem a tad laborious when I can just ping them a couple sentences through an iMessage. We can all communicate without having to even leave the four walls of our homes. And even when we do all meet up, there’s no denying of those times where you’re waiting around for the bill after a meal, only to look around finding both yourself and your friends staring at your smartphone screens in sync.
It’s safe to say that proper etiquette has escaped out the window. These sacred little devices have somehow been superglued to our hands. Rather than enjoying the present moment with the people around us, we find our eyes wonder to that little push notification bar that is politely informing you that you have twenty new likes on that Instagram post you uploaded an hour ago. I mean, I know we’re currently in a global pandemic with social distancing rules in place, but haven’t we been socially distanced for years already?
Social media was not created with bad intent and there is no denying it has reminded me to wish my old friend a happy birthday and keep me connected to loved ones across the globe. A social networking site wouldn’t be designed to drive individuals and communities apart after all. It has simply morphed into a cohesive marketing machine as some sort of unintended consequences.
Whilst the Social Dilemma brings our very choice, authenticity and human relationships into question, there is equally an opportunity to fight back and say F*** you to AI technology. Contrary to the Social Dilemma’s argument that we lose choice, authenticity and meaningful relationships in our everyday lives, we can use the very same platforms to regain choice, authenticity and meaningful relationships into our everyday lives. Here's how:
Choice – we all have the power to mindfully select and choose what content we want to engage with, determining the communities of people end up interacting and engaging with online. Rather than being spoon-fed content you’re half interested in, stand up to algorithm and control the engagement which is most meaningful to you.
Authenticity – we all have the power to create online spaces for freedom, expression and individual creativity. In doing so, we can create spaces that pay tribute to our interests, passions and goals, finding people along the way that share your interests.
Human relationships - we all have the power and choice to facilitate spaces which encourage and support one another. Empowering like-minded people, you can build deeper connections and mobilise people through a shared sense of purpose, both locally and across the globe.