Monday, 6 September 2021

Movie review: The Social Dilemma, dir Jeff Orlowski (2020)

This movie was talked about on Twitter when it first appeared but since then its messages haven’t made much noise in the public sphere. To criticise the business model of companies such as Instagram and Facebook you need to use the same sorts of complexity and sophistication that these companies use, and this probably accounts for the relative silence. Complex ideas aren’t much commented on on sites such as Twitter, simple responses that are expressed in an extreme fashion get all the “likes” and retweets. Certainly, people haven't responded to the movie by stopping using their apps.

To talk about how Facebook engineers the news feed, or how YouTube engineers recommendations is to get to the core of the way these sites work: by rewarding the evolved systems the human body has developed over millions of years of development and refinement. We’re just not designed to cope with the addictiveness of the modern news feed with its constant appeals to our sympathies, its neverending search for the next response – just one more “like”, just another comment, or even a “share”. The dopamine rush we get from being recognised as we post and comment is what brings us back to the screen time after time.

The movie uses interviews as well as fictionalised enactments to get its message across. The people in front of the camera are mostly former employees of the companies involved. Many of them are still in the IT business, but others are fronting nonprofits. There are also the usual sort of talking head that current affairs programs bring on-camera to give their expert view of things. The package is neat and concise and entertaining. Well worth the time need to watch.

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