The Social Dilemma Extended

The Social Dilemma is worth watching. If I had a kid with social media accounts I’d force them to watch it under threat of punishment. As someone without a kid I assume that’s the best way to get them to do things. The documentary clarifies the harmful methods these platforms use to exploit psychology, monopolize attention, and alter behavior. Some important things I think it missed or glossed over too quickly:

The only way to limit the damage these platforms cause is to limit usage, but what if your livelihood depends on hours of daily exposure to social media? Musicians, journalists, social media/marketing managers, the owner of the bar/coffee shop/restaurant down the street. Almost every entrepreneur is in this position to some degree, especially artists, a class of people extra sensitive to judgement and whose access to opportunity is defined by view counts and engagement. Being financially dependent on that much social media exposure without awareness of the dangers involved will inevitably lead to the digital equivalent of black lung.

These platforms maximize revenue by maximizing user engagement, and have optimized their feeds to feature content that serves that goal. Unfortunately for users, the content best-suited for this purpose is often confrontational, untrue, depressing, or some combination of all of those things. What’s also true is that excessive exposure to social media breeds an addiction to the social cues platforms use to keep people hooked: likes, shares, retweets, comments, tags, whatever. This means that users themselves become chemically incentivized to maximize engagement with their own content. Unfortunately for their social media connections, the content best-suited for this purpose is often confrontational, untrue, depressing, or some combination of all of those things.

Enter the feedback loop. Platforms use destructive content to hook users, users use destructive content to hook followers, every real-life conversation sparked by that content generates new users, and the cycle repeats. We’re so many iterations into the loop that it’s come to define our collective experience. The President of the United States retweets memes. Whole political campaigns are defined by epic slap-backs. Governments sponsor the clandestine distribution of racially-charged violent video clips. Journalists and pundits peddle increasingly dishonest accounts and arguments to maximize engagement with increasingly polarized demographics. Individuals everywhere do whatever it takes to get attention and scratch the itch. In 10 years we went from three cable news networks to three billion.

What can we do? As individuals, we can limit direct exposure to algorithm-curated feeds and notifications designed to keep us staring at our screens. Delete the apps from your phone, turn off as many notifications as you can, and set a timer for a reasonable amount of time if you decide to use social media through a browser. We can also think about our own posting habits and those of our friends and do our best to weed out content that’s ultimately about attention-seeking and validation as much as anything else.

As far as platforms go, the option to disable likes, comments, shares, tags, and other features that play on psychology would go a long way. Those features should be limited or disabled completely for users too young to have developed the skills necessary to protect their mental and emotional wellbeing (under 30?). Users should also have access to a raw feed untouched by an algorithm, and I would absolutely pay a fee to disable ads and ad tracking if that were an option.

Finally, tune in to my band’s Facebook Live stream on Thursday, September 24th at 8pm Pacific! All your friends will be watching and you can like their comments. Maybe they’ll like some of yours too. It’s free to watch but we’ll be accepting tips on Venmo!