Movie Review: The Social Dilemma

Capitalism is just behavior modification for money.

A few weeks ago, I saw the movie, The Social Dilemma. I think I picked the perfect time to watch it, too. I had already been thinking a lot about behavior modification and the entire idea that our behavior can be modified through a regime of punishment and reward. As I watched the movie, and the interviews, that is all that I could see throughout. In social media, I see a stream, no, a river, of behavior modification.

The movie hit upon several themes, and the overarching theme was one of manipulation. The goal of social media then seems to be manipulation, to what end, I’m not sure, but that was one of the messages I got from the movie. Social media can be used to manipulate people to do things they wouldn’t otherwise do.

Another interesting theme in the movie was that social media was being used to make predictions about human behavior and selling those predictions. It’s a very subtle marketing tool. In a way, social is being used to make the user feel like someone else’s idea belongs to the user, not to the entity making the suggestion. Clearly, they have to make money somehow or social media wouldn’t work as a business.

The movie claims that social media has an interest in finding that weakness in people and exploiting them. That’s an impression that is easy to gather from watching the movie. Social media is evil. Social media is destroying America. Social media is being used to initiate the great liberal takeover by silencing conservatives.

The people who use social media to make money are not evil, but they are probably confused. One interviewee in the movie touched upon this point. He didn’t think that social media companies are evil. He worked in one of those companies, so he should know. He did say that the intention of social media companies is to keep people engaged. It was a matter of luck that they figured out that they could use algorithms to make predictions, to create a sort of positive feedback look that could keep people engaged. Social media companies are engaged in the attention economy. If they can keep your attention engaged in their business, they make money.

From the beginning, the premise of The Social Dilemma assumes a lack of agency. Judging by the stories I’ve read of people responding to their social media experiences in self-destructive ways, I can see how one might get this impression. But everyone has agency. Everyone can make choices. Do they have freedom of choice? I’m not so sure. But when people choose to hurt people, hurt themselves encourage others to do harm, they are making choices they don’t have to make. they could choose to get help.

I’ve read several stories about people who were bullied on social media and then committed suicide. Those people made a choice to commit suicide rather than ask for help. When we feel shame, we feel like we’re bad, we’re wrong, and that we don’t deserve help. We might even punish ourselves.

I’ve been bullied in real life with kids at school. I know what bullying feels like. I’ve been there. When I was in school, I felt a lot of shame as a result of bullying. I withdrew from people as a result of bullying, and as a teenager, I did have suicidal thoughts, but somehow I made it. I read books, I found something else to do. I found work. I felt valued when I got a check and put that in the bank. I may have considered suicide, but I didn’t practice ideation about it.

I’ve never been bullied online. Oh, people have tried, but I’m an adult and I know how to deal with bullies. I know that they’re suffering already, or they would not engage in bullying. I know that they’re only doing what they know how to do. Whatever they do, I don’t take what they say personally.

Social media, intentionally or not, preys on weaknesses in our minds. But where did we get this weakness? Child-rearing practices. Most of us were raised on behavior modification, a system of punishment and reward with the aim of extracting compliance with family and/or cultural rules. The problem with behavior modification is it doesn’t really teach any skills. Behavior modification doesn’t take into account or include the teaching of the skills required to meet the standard imposed. Behavior modification doesn’t consider whether or not someone lacks the capacity to do better. Social media sets the bar so low, that anyone could meet the standard required to get a reward. Social media is also lax on punishment and only bans people or mutes their message when they incite violence.

I know what it’s like to see that more than ten people liked my post or comment on a post. I kind of like to see the ellipsis working when another person is typing a response to my comment on a post. I like reading the comment threads, too. But I’ve found that social media is tiring, so I have strict limits on the time I spend on social media. I’d rather read a book, watch a movie, or spend time with my family. I feel like I’m fighting for my sense of agency when I spend too much time on social media, and that’s really tiring.

People who have been abused as children are prone to the manipulation presented by social media. I’ve seen people issue vitriolic, profane, and abusive responses to my comments and posts. The implied message is that the abuser believes that if he abuses me enough, he can change my mind and make me think and behave differently. That is really tiring to read, too.

I feel the rise of ire when I read such comments. I think of that XKCD comic, Someone is wrong on the internet because I know that the emotional response is by design. The division, the vitriol, the disparagement, they are all part of the engagement business model of Facebook and Twitter. That dynamic is a magnet for people who have been abused.

The people who use social media to make money suffer from the effects of behavior modification, too. They’ve created a system that sells human behavior for a price. They get high from the response of the audience and the users, and the money. Social media offers a predictive model that makes it easier to target advertising and influence with subliminal messages and cues that are hard for users to notice. That means we are often not aware of the influence of the advertising messages on social media. We may find that ideas that we thought were our own were really suggestions in the sidebar of the page or a promoted post in our social media feeds.

One thing that I appreciated about the movie, The Social Dilemma, was a discussion of how to throw off the intelligence of social media systems. Social media depends on us being as passive as possible, as open to suggestions as possible. One example they mentioned was selecting music on a streaming platform rather than just listening to the suggested music. Another is actively pursuing your interests in social media, rather than just relying upon the content of the feed. And finally, the last suggestion is to severely limit the time we spend in the rabbit hole of social media.

I can do maybe 15–30 minutes before I get frustrated with social media. Then I can it, stop it, do something else. I can feel it fighting to influence my actions. I can feel social media trying to suggest their way into my mind. I accept that they already have a toehold, but by limiting my time on it, I can limit the influence of social media on my mind.

I also believe that kids are extremely vulnerable to social media. I plan on not allowing my kids access to social media until they’re at least 13 or 14. There is just too much crap out there, too many people who are still reliving the abuse they sustained at the hands of their parents and acting it out on other people. There are too many people trying to make a buck off of social media with subliminal impressions, and those impressions are very powerful forces against young minds.

The Social Dilemma put a lot of focus on the effects of social media on kids as well as adults. I think that we can prepare our kids for social media, but that will take time. I also believe that it’s possible to restore a sense of agency in our kids by just spending civilized time with them. We build character just by being polite, civilized human beings around our kids. When we play games with them, like board games, card games or just go outside to play frisbee or catch, we are building character in our kids. When we act responsibly around our kids, they will copy us. Kids are born to copy the behavior of the adults around them. We can make them stronger around social media by giving them more time than we spend on social media. We can model citizenship to our kids.

The Social Dilemma is a great movie, well worth the time to watch. It features interviews of people who were deep into the business of social media, and those people offered dire warnings and real hope that we can turn social media into a public good. I would love to see social media redirect its awesome power to the goal of lifting us all up to reach our greatest aspirations. I believe that if social media can be used for ill, it can be used for good, too.

Write on.

Written by

Husband, father, worker, philosopher, and observer. Plumbing the depths of consciousness to find the spring of happiness. Write on.

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