3 Things We Learned About Social Media from Netflix’s “The Social Dilemma”

This blog was originally published by Jay McGinley on mysatellites.com.

People are starting to wake up to the ills of modern social networking sites, thanks in large part to Netflix’s new documentary “The Social Dilemma.” The film features interviews with former employees from today’s largest social media platforms. Many of whom were integral to the early development of these companies. 

In the documentary, they sound the alarm about the many ways in which social media controls and manipulates us. 

Here are our three biggest takeaways:

1. Our Attention is the Product

“The Social Dilemma” tells us that many social media companies succeed by capturing as much of our attention as they can, then selling that attention to the highest bidders. As the saying goes, if you’re not paying for the product, you are the product. 

So, is that necessarily a bad thing?

According to Tim Wu, Columbia Law School Professor and author of the book The Attention Merchants, it can be. In an interview with Vox, Tim Wu defines the attention merchants as businesses whose model is selling access to people’s minds. “The attention industry needs people who are in a distracted state, or who are perpetually distractible, and thus open to advertising,” he says.

Long term, this along with other factors, has led to an epidemic of “distraction sickness.” This is where you are unable to concentrate and you constantly lose your attention and your time. An epidemic “where you lose hours of the day clicking on random nothingness” according to Wu.

Have you ever picked up your phone with one task in mind and an hour later realized you spent the whole time scrolling through various social media sites having completely forgotten why you picked up your phone in the first place? That’s what he’s talking about.

In the article, Wu quotes American philosopher and psychologist William James, “Your life experience is what you choose to pay attention to.” If companies are capturing and manipulating our attention, how in control of our lives can we be?

2. Addiction is Built into the Design of Social Networking Sites

“The Social Dilemma” points out that many social networks exploit human weakness by designing with something called positive intermittent reinforcement in mind. 

Tristan Harris, a former Google design ethicist and one of the experts interviewed in the film, compares it to a Vegas slot machine. When we check our phones hoping that we have a notification, it’s like we are pulling the lever of a slot machine hoping we hit the jackpot.

According to Mike Brooks, Ph.D., in an article written for Psychology Today, we have a difficult time resisting our screens because of this “Vegas effect.” Because we occasionally hit the jackpot, so to speak, when we check and there are notifications on our phone, we continue to check and check and check. 

“Like a box of chocolate, we never know what we are going to get. Who posted to Facebook? Who commented on my post? Let me check my news feed just one more time… the moment our smartphones buzz or chime, this dopamine reward system is activated,” Brooks says.

And it is affecting our health. 

One study from California State University found that individuals who visited a social media site at least 58 times per week were 3x more likely to feel socially isolated and depressed.

3. Social Media Platforms are Not a Tool

We think of our social media platforms as a tool for keeping in touch with our friends and family. But according to Tristan Harris, that’s not true. He claims a tool is something that sits there patiently waiting to be of use. 

Think of a hammer in a toolbox. When we haven’t used it in a while, it doesn’t knock on the lid of the toolbox every couple of hours begging to be used, manipulating us into using it. It waits. It’s patient. It’s a tool.

As much as social media would like us to believe it’s a tool, it’s not. It nags us by sending a steady stream of notifications and emails. It seduces us, it manipulates us. As Harris says in “The Social Dilemma”, “It has its own goals and it has its own way of pursuing them by using your psychology against you.”

Can Social Media Be Fixed?

So, social media, in its current state, has some major flaws. What can we do to protect ourselves from its manipulation? What can we do to fix it? 

First off, you can do your part to protect yourself and your family by developing healthy social media habits. What do we mean by that? Do things like limit your screen time. Turn off notifications. Know what task you want to complete on social media and don’t get sucked into an infinite scroll. And when social media is making you feel anxious or depressed, take a break.

Secondly, call for social media regulations. Right now, there are a few recent regulations focused on data privacy. It’s a start. But according to Kristina Podnar, a cybersecurity expert, we need to go further. 

In an interview with Bustle, Podnar says that we should also address “addiction to platforms, manipulation of humans, impersonations and identity hijacking, truth in content, as well as the ethical measures that need to be in place in order for platforms to function with integrity.”

Finally, demand humane design from social media platforms. The Center for Humane Design (co-founded by Tristan Harris) outlines the principles of humane design. They include obsessing over values rather than engagement metrics, nurturing mindfulness instead of vying for attention, and binding growth with responsibility instead of just maximizing growth.

There is work to be done. But it’s possible to save the social media landscape. Jaron Lanier, who was featured in “The Social Dilemma,” is one of the leading voices for redesigning the way the internet and social networks work for us. He believes that social media can be fixed. 

In an interview on the podcast, Too Embarrassed To Ask, Lanier says, “I very strongly feel that we can isolate the good parts of social media which are very real and very true and just cut off and incinerate the bad parts, and the bad parts can be described very clearly as a manipulation engine… And that’s the thing that needs to be shut down.”

We can wait for social media companies to incinerate their bad parts–the parts that make them the most money–or we can take collective action to re-capture our attention. It starts with us.

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