The Social Dilemma

The Social Dilemma is a documentary about the negative affects of social media (and the companies behind them) from ex-founders and app developers themselves. I was excited to see some people I’ve read about like Jaron Lanier, Shoshana Zuboff, and Jonathan Haidt in the film as well.

Unfortunately, I started watching it late at night and fell asleep before the end. But what I did watch felt familiar to what I’ve read about and listened too over the past couple years.

What I thought was interesting is the discussion the film is triggering. Some call it fear mongering. Others call it out for not having enough “diverse voices”. But all can agree that it brought up valid points we as a culture and society need to address.

The first film I watched about social media was a documentary about the affects of Instagram on Gen Z called Social Animals. What struck me about the film wasn’t so much about Instagram itself, (that Instagram is fake, holds people to larger than life standards, etc.) but how it affected each person’s life in the film.

One girl, Kaylyn Slevin, was I believe, 17 years old at the time and an aspiring swim suit model. Her dad, instead of telling her to stop spending so much time on Instagram told her if she could get X number of subscribers, he would invest in her account. Essentially, he understood what Instagram was and encouraged his daughter to make a business out of it if she really wanted to be famous.

Of course the family had means. Slevin lived in a beautiful home that was already Instagram worthy. She had access to the beach and her father’s success to build her account on.

That didn’t work so well for Emma Crockett Robinson, a Midwest girl. Instagram for her was a tormentor. Her friendships, popularity, and school life kept up with her constantly through the app. Eventually it got to her psyche and she attempted suicide.

Her parents didn’t understand how she could go from having a friend to never speaking to them again over what may have happened on Instagram. They didn’t understand how the app worked, how their daughter and kids her age used it, and weren’t able to help her. After switching schools, Robinson eventually got back on Instagram and her ghosts came back to haunt her.

Instagram wasn’t always this way. It started out as a “window into other people’s worlds”. A curated collection of life from around the world. The founders held IRL (in real life) meetups and encouraged real life Instagram communities. They would curate the “explore” button to show the standard and values Instagram had.

Then Facebook bought Instagram and pushed ad monetization on the platform. To be fair, people had already figured out how to monetize their accounts with ads. Hence, the “influencer” was born. The founders and original users of Instagram saw the platform change. It was no longer art in the form on photos, it was about making getting famous and making money. The deep connections the original users formed on the app gave way to shallow posts that catered to the most views.

So, is social media technology in itself evil? Does its very existence cause more harm than good? Or is it the people who use the apps that turn them into dangerous platforms?

A sense of community

There’s no doubt that social media gives users a sense of community. Even though I deleted my Facebook account, I still use Twitter and LinkedIn. I think Twitter definitely sways one way on the cultural spectrum, but by curating who I follow, muting hashtags, and blocking certain words, I’m able to keep my feed industry focused.

The question is, is that sense of community real, or is it just an illusion?

Facebook’s mission is to “give people the power to build community and bring the world closer together.” It sounds great to us users, but what does it mean to Facebook? It means getting as many people as possible to use Facebook as much as possible. “Every single activity at the company – deciding what new features to build, how to design them, where to put them in the app, how to push them to users – stemmed from a religious obsession with growth, marketed to employees as a moral mission.”1

On the surface, we use apps like Facebook and Instagram (now owned by Facebook and operated with the same marketing philosophy) to connect with and keep in contact with our friends. In reality, they are carefully cultivated communities designed to earn your trust in order to serve you ads and keep using the app.

Designed with addiction in mind

The Social Dilemma via

In the past couple decades a shift happened in video games that translated to app development. With the advent of mobile, games were no longer about having fun, they were about making money. App designers use the same techniques casino game developers use to make their apps. While you think you’re harmlessly using a social media app or playing a mobile game, you’re actually being programmed to stay on the app longer and keep coming back more often.

That’s why when you go without your phone, for even a few minutes, you may feel the tug of your favorite app pulling you back to your phone. When we think of addiction, we think of things like alcohol and substance abuse. These types of addictions are obviously destructive where, “many behavioral addictions are quietly destructive acts wrapped in cloaks of creation.”2

In fact, we see this in the Social Dilemma. At one point, the mom in the fictional family puts everyone’s phones in a lock box during dinner time. The preteen girl gets up, grabs a wrench, and smashes the box open to get her phone.

In the process of her destruction, the girl cracks the screen of her brother’s phone. The mom tells her son, if he can go a week without his phone, she’ll replace the screen. He makes it two days.

You are the product

When the product is free, YOU are the product.

How many times do you scroll through social media and wonder if its listening to your conversations? You talk about buying a new TV or browse a website and suddenly see ads for those products on your social media. In reality, social media data collection and algorithms are so good they can predict what you want.

Social media companies like Facebook don’t just use information you give them to serve you ads. They collect data through cookies that are stored on your web browser, then reserved back to you. It’s not just social media companies. Google trackers were found on 75% of the top million websites in 2019.

“Let’s say you are looking at a trip to Paris on Travelocity, maybe you cruise over to Amazon to look for a Lonely Planet guide to Paris in another tab. Both Amazon, Google, and now Facebook have stored cookies in your browser which send back to your account what you are searching for while you’re logged in, even if you aren’t using the site at the time.”

What can you do about it?

Social media companies depend on us, the users. They only are affected when people stop using them. If you’re concerned about social media’s influence on your life, delete it from you phone. Don’t let your kids get started on it before they’re ready. Embrace Digital Minimalism.

Digital Minimalism Tips

  • Don’t sleep with your phone in the same room as you.
  • Delete social media and games from your phone (start with a goal of 30 days. You can always add it back on).
  • Delete social media accounts that don’t bring you joy or provide value.
  • Disable push notifications from social media apps and email.
  • Remember that social media feeds are algorithms. Make an effort to go outside your bubble and try to see the common humanity among people you interact with online.
  • Take time to learn about how social media algorithms work, what’s controlled by AI and what’s controlled by people, how they use your data, and who they share it with.
  • Use alternatives to main stream social media companies.
Instead of ThisUse This

Read these books

Irresistible The Rise of Addictive Technology and the Business of Keeping Us Hooked by Adam Alter

Digital Minimalism by Cal Newport

No Filter: The Inside Story of Instagram by Sarah Frier


  1. No Filter, page 91
  2. Irresistible The Rise of Addictive Technology and the Business of Keeping Us Hooked

Featured Photo by camilo jimenez on Unsplash

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One response to “The Social Dilemma”

  1. New Media Works Avatar

    Hi Lily 🙂

    I wonder how the director would feel about the fact that one of the first things you recall about the film is that it made you fall asleep! 😛 LOL

    It might be a fun exercise to try and define the term “social media” (I have yet to hear a satisfactory definition)

    IMHO it is no surprize that a former Google exec (with loads of GOOG cash) would attack their online competitors (i.e. the competition of Google), and act as though he himself (and indeed also all of Google) did NOT exploit “Google users” (see also ). Although he didn’t say Google was innocent, he certainly downplayed how Google is actually by far the market leader when it comes to exploitation, fake news, etc. If he were a *current* employee of Google, then the company could be more directly linked to his arguments; this way, the company can say they have nothing to do with this propaganda against their own competitors.

    🙂 Norbert


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