Editor’s note: This review was originally published at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival. Netflix releases the film on Wednesday, September 9.
Perhaps the single most lucid, succinct, and profoundly terrifying analysis of social media ever created for mass consumption, Jeff Orlowski’s “The Social Dilemma” does for Facebook what his previous documentaries “Chasing Ice” and “Chasing Coral” did for climate change (read: bring compelling new insight to a familiar topic while also scaring the absolute shit out of you). And while the film covers — and somehow manages to contain — a staggering breadth of topics and ramifications, one little sentence is all it takes to lay out the means and ends of the crisis at hand: Russia didn’t hack Facebook, Russia used Facebook.
That may not be a mind-blowing idea for anyone who’s been raised on the internet, but it would be wrong to think that Orlowski’s film is only speaking to the back of the class. While “The Social Dilemma” is relevant to every person on the planet, and should be legible enough to even the most technologically oblivious types (the Amish, the U.S. Senate, and so forth), its target demographic is very online types who think they understand the information age too well to be taken advantage of. That’s zoomers, millennials, and screen junkies of any stripe who wouldn’t have the faintest interest in a finger-wagging documentary about how they should spend more time outside.
Taking a top-down, inside out approach to the basic nature of the social media experiment, Orlowski’s film doesn’t waste any time in proving its bonafides (and using them to strike fear into your heart). It begins with an ominous nugget of wisdom from Sophocles, who would have crushed it on Twitter: “Nothing vast enters the life of mortals without a curse.” From there, Orlowski introduces viewers to some of the most worried-looking white people you’re likely to find these days: The designers, engineers, and executives who invented social media, and then quit when they began to understand the existential threat it posed to all civilization. The guy who invented the “like” button. An ex-department head at Instagram. Even one of the techies responsible for Gmail and Google Drive. As annoying as it can be when someone tells you to quit Facebook, it’s hard to ignore someone who’s actually quit Facebook.
Orlowski’s star interviewee, however, is a guy who’s often referred to as “Silicon Valley’s conscience.” His name is Tristan Harris, he’s the co-founder of the Center for Humane Technology, and his measured alarmism serves as a worried voice of reason throughout the film as “The Social Dilemma” strives to bridge the gap between abstract threats and direct consequences. The most overarching of those macro concerns is a free-to-use business model that coerces people into betraying their own value. As the saying goes (and is quoted here): “If you’re not paying for the product, you are the product.”
With the help of articulate testimony, illuminating visual aids, and a well-crafted thesis that elegantly articulates the relationship between persuasive technology and human behavior, Orlowski fortifies the familiar argument that addiction isn’t a side effect of social media, but rather the industry’s business model. Our data is used as a currency for these companies, but our time is a far more precious commodity — how much of our lives can they get us to forfeit over to them?
The more time we spend on social media, the more valuable our human futures become; the more valuable our human futures become, the more that advertisers are willing to pay for them. And how does a company like Facebook or YouTube (which is technically Google) convince us to spend more time on their platforms? They change our fundamental perception of reality, as The Algorithm is designed to populate things into our feeds and queues that will excite/agitate us towards engagement, pull us deeper into our respective rabbit holes, and silo us all into our separate realities. It’s surveillance capitalism run amok, as well as a peerlessly effective recipe for extremism.
Orlowski, recognizing that diagnosing the problem on such a profound scale is enough to make even the most rational of people sound like they’re suffering from paranoid schizophrenia, devises a bold and semi-successful way of making these enormous concepts feel more life-sized. Every so often, Orlowski cuts away to the scripted tale of an average, middle-class American family in order to more practically illustrate the effect that social media has on our lives. And by “our lives,” this critic means to stress that “The Social Dilemma” is more interested in Facebook’s impact on the average teenager than it is in — say — Facebook’s impact on the genocidal violence against Muslim Rohyingas in Myanmar. But Orlowski knows his audience.
“Booksmart” actor Skyler Gisondo plays a high school kid named Ben who’s addicted to his phone, “Moonrise Kingdom” breakout Kara Hayward is his concerned older sister, and — in a touch of absolute genius — “Mad Men” star Vincent Kartheiser plays several human manifestations of The Algorithm itself, selling Ben reasons to stay on his phone like some kind of dystopian Pete Campbell. These sequences first arrive with the queasy awkwardness of an after school special, and seem determined to make teenagers roll their eyeballs right out of their heads. But if these dramatizations can be more than a bit too on the nose, they’re redeemed by an emergent — and very amusing — self-awareness that reflects our own; a certain level of irony is required to get through to people who regularly tweet about how much they hate Twitter (aka “this website” aka “this hellsite”).
The least effective of these moments can make it feel as though “The Social Dilemma” underestimates the persuasiveness of its own arguments, but the most valuable passages help to illustrate one particularly alarming sound byte from elsewhere in the film: “We’re so worried about tech overpowering human strength that we don’t pay attention to tech overpowering human weakness.” It’s helpful to see how social media can inflame our inherent need for approval, and discourage people from taking risks that might alienate the online community. It’s convincing to see The Algorithm alert Ben to his ex-girlfriend’s new relationship so that he’ll spend more time sifting through her photos, and — in a frustratingly reductive way — watch The Algorithm populate Ben’s feed with videos that radicalize him into the fold of a political movement called “The Extreme Center,” a cute touch that nevertheless draws a false equivalency between left and right.
Is “The Social Dilemma” persuasive enough to convince a MAGA zealot to stop binge-watching Ben Shapiro nonsense and buy a subscription to a newspaper? It’s hard to say. But the film will definitely make you more cognizant of your own behavior — not just of how you use the internet, but how the internet uses you. And it will do so in a way that feels less like an intervention than it does a wake-up call; Orlowski and his subjects recognize how the internet has created a simultaneous utopia and dystopia, and they aren’t under any delusions that we’re able to wish it away. Their documentary isn’t instructive so much as directional, and thereby most fascinating for the implications it leaves you to consider on your own time.
How has social media shaped the way we think about (overlapping) things like politics, race, and entertainment? What impact does siloing people into their own realities have on our faith in empathy, objective truth, and some kind of shared understanding? And does the isolated and algorithmically-programmed nature of streaming video make it less of an alternative to the theatrical experience than its antithesis? As human futures become human presents, these questions will only grow more urgent. In the meantime: Quit Facebook, don’t click on Instagram ads, and — for the love of God — make sure that your Twitter feed is set to chronological order instead of “showing you the best tweets first,” because the only hope we have left lies in the difference between what you and The Algorithm consider to be good content.
“The Social Dilemma” premiered at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival in the Documentary Premieres section.