The Netflix docudrama “The Social Dilemma” is worth a watch. Centred around interviews with former executives of social media companies, including Facebook, Instagram, Pinterest and Google, it has been criticised for using a fictional all-American family and personified algorithm to dramatize its central narrative.
Despite criticism, it has been well-received, staying in Netflix’s top 10 most viewed programs in Australia for over a month. It has spawned both a movement and a website designed to help us reassess our relationship with social media.
Netflix has picked a winning formula. Docudramas are powerful vehicles for exploring social issues and creating behavioural change in others. The mix of fact and fiction creates a heady cocktail. The interviews with those “who were there” provide factual clout. The fictional scenes cement our emotional connection with what is being portrayed – after all, that could be us.
Our love affair with social media is portrayed as an unhealthy obsession. Images of invisible puppeteers pulling strings and Screamin’ Jay Hawkins’ “I Put a Spell on You” portray us as unwitting victims of the attention economy. The Silicon Valley interviewees emphasise a fundamentally unethical business model based on predicting and manipulating human behaviour.
If a technopanic is a moral panic over contemporary technology, this docudrama is the cultural artefact of our current technopanic nightmare. The positive aspects of social media are barely touched on, the communities and relationships it creates and sustains, its role during disasters such as the Australian bushfires, its ability to create social change such as the MeToo Movement and Black Lives Matter. The final scenes showing the arrest of the fictional teenagers for participating in a social protest bring us to the end of the slippery slope. Their choice to protest is not real. It is merely a social media manipulation.
“The Social Dilemma” opens up important questions for debate. Questions about how social media impacts our mental health, of its role in the spread of disinformation and the facilitation of hate speech. For this reason, it is worth watching. Yet it never really manages to resolve the central question. Does technology control us or do we control it?
I know what I believe.