Direct Your Attention: The Social Dilemma

By Owen Mason-Hill

Pia Contreras

This issue of Direct Your Attention is of a different sort; you won’t hear me shouting compliments toward a film or project. Instead, what you will get is a presentation of a project whose mission is so urgent that I think it surpasses even the shortcomings of the project itself. “The Social Dilemma,” directed by Jeff Orlowski — who directed similarly timely films “Chasing Ice” (2012) and “Chasing Coral” (2017) — displays its message as boldly as a neon sign: YOU ARE THE PRODUCT. 

Assembling an array of ex-silicon valley executives, “The Social Dilemma” aims to break down the problem with social media companies’ business models. According to Tim Kendall, who previously served as Facebook’s Director of Monetization, the most logical way to monetize platforms like Facebook, Snapchat and Instagram was to sell advertisements. What the film describes is a commercial industry built on the “attention economy.” This economy is thus predicated on the level of certainty that a user’s attention will be given to an ad, and the highest level of certainty is rewarded with the highest monetary compensation. 

This is where the film takes a turn. In what appears to be an attempt to mimic Adam McKay’s directorial approach to breaking down complex problems, “The Social Dilemma” puts on a fictional drama wherein a teenage boy (Skyler Gisondo) is seduced by his phone and ultimately falls prey to the entrancing aura of an extremist organization that floods his feed. These scenes are haphazard and poorly written, and the characters that inhabit this parallel world are reduced to their most simple form. It truly feels like a wasted opportunity, one where a more adept hand would have created more intelligent characters with more complex thoughts, rather than portraying the prototypical user as a helpless victim of algorithms. Despite all of this, the film’s message comes across clearly, because it is understandably presented so simply. The artificial intelligence and algorithmic processes behind the farming of user data are incredibly complex and equally difficult to convey, and my only thought is that the film went too far in the opposite direction, oversimplifying the problem to a point where, at moments, I felt condescended to. 

However, I think the film does a sufficient job in waking viewers up from the zombie-like slumber we’ve been in, putting forth a call to action for us to protect ourselves against the manipulative power of these platforms. Similar to how “Inside Out” (2015) conveyed children’s emotions, this film portrays the social media algorithms as three men inside the brain, coldly calculating the perfect posts to add to the teenage boy’s feed so that his attention will always be kept above 90%. Not only do they curate his recommended pages, they auction off his attention to advertisers, always selling to the highest bidder — no matter the company. This, I believe, through all the murkiness of its poorly designed drama, is the thesis of the film: these companies are auctioning off our attention to the highest bidder — and very often that highest bidder can spread false information, hate speech and a slew of other poisonous ideas throughout a user base. Most of all, the film describes how powerless we, as individuals, are when it comes to stopping it, drawing parallels to other industries that call their customers “users” — namely the illegal drug market. 

What “The Social Dilemma” fails to accomplish is what appears to be its only goal: to create a more educated user base. It ultimately spreads an equally oversimplified presentation of a problem, as would be seen on the very social media posts they cite. What is missing from this film is any sort of guidance, any step towards a greater conversation that would instill any sort of well-crafted thought from its audience. I fear that this film is a part of the problem it documents: it presents its viewers with something they already know, appealing to their want for approval. 

And yet, the film’s mission is to start a discussion that needs to take place. This movie presents some of the problems, not all of them. I do, however, wish there were a greater thrust towards education and fostering a viewership that attempts to educate itself and take back some of the power over its own ideology. 

My advice: watch the movie and do your best to be a savvy and critical viewer. Don’t go rushing to uninstall Facebook or Instagram, and don’t brush the problem off for its role in this uninspiring film. Do your research, and find ways to reassert control over how you consume social media. Most of all, become an educated user, someone who is equally aware of the information they’re not receiving as that which they are. I, for one, will be sure to dial back my YouTube screen time and reevaluate the channels I subscribe to. Take this film for what it tried to be, not what it is: a spark that lights the fires of discourse and creates long-lasting, real-world change in the way that social media companies dominate the globe.