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Web2 is fucked up, but “Social Dilemma” fails in explaining why

Social Dilemma is no longer the #1 choice on Netflix and many have already given their opinion on the piece. This text is a critical review of the (otherwise visually excellent) narrative which opens many questions; but it is also a staged drama that gives merely a few, often superficial, answers.

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Netflix’s documentary Social Dilemma hits social platforms as kids ar hitting a layered Piñata. In just two hours of narrative, the director ambitiously set out to uncover malicious algorithms, “black hat” interactive design and the advertising industry.

And it is to be expected that such an endeavor will divide viewers – some praise it through the obvious social networks` unethical business model, and the others declassify it through the shallowness and selectivity of the narrative.

But this is not a novelty. The famous Zeitgeist was cooking a similarly polarizing soup to gain conspiratorial followers and tons of online commentary. Unfortunately, aged documentaries of such sort fail to explain the real problems and actually misdirects viewers. You know… Bruce Willis and the Kansas City Shuffle.

Let’s not fall for this trick – we will analyze Netflix’s attempt to uncover the issue of social networks because I believe that most of us are either “heavier” users of this social media platforms, parents who limit screen time to their children or professionals whose default morning tabs are Adwords screens or bounce rate views on Google Analytics.

The consequences are clear (with a moderate spoiler)

Jeff Orlowski, Exposure Labs and Netflix have done an interesting cinematic job – the documentary follows the form of interweaving the statements of (some) representatives of the tech sector with dramatic narrative. In some scenes, the drama is masterfully “real” – a fun example is a scene with a family of six who lock their cell phones in a vault to quietly eat dinner while their daughter breaks a padlock Klingon-style, and continues scrolling through TikTok.

The author thus emphasizes Screen Time as a big problem of today’s society, especially with youngsters that party in front of Croatian National Theater and other users born after 1997. And that is not far from the truth. Generation Z spends an average of 2 hours and 55 minutes a day on social media, which is only part of the puzzle. A different part is related to the excessive sharing of user content – 81% of Gen Z users do not think at all about the consequences of putting content on social networks, which in turn leads to unnecessary sharing of personal data, so called; oversharing.

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Liam Francis Walsh, The New Yorker

However, the documentary stages Screen Time as a designed dependency that has been declassified several times. When a problem is posed as an addiction, then the solution of abstinence is presented, which is again a proven meaningless solution – we know today that moderate use of social networks has its objective and measurable benefits. Much like going for an ice cream.

But social networks are only part of the equation

The story further introduces us to the problems of anxiety, social distancing and depression which is becoming an increasing problem, especially among teenagers.

It is true that there is a lot of research on the subject – terms like Facebook-Envy or Fear-Of-Missing-Out are also mentioned but this research should be taken with a grain of salt. Because… not all social networks are the same.The context and environment of the users extremely vary, as does the financial status of the individual.

For example, in the video game industry, which has been on the rise for over five decades, no relevant patterns of positive/negative impact on the mental health of moderate players have been found.

A great example of quality and long-term authority on the subject is Sonia Livingstone, who in this ten-minute video challenges the myths about the impact of social networks on children’s mental health…

The Social Dilemma, however, points out very well that mental health is exposed to new and unknown appetites because of the use of social networks. A potential problem is when the use turns into an escape from reality, ie. as editor Ana Marija says in a conversation on the topic:

“The problem with things that affect the psycho-physical state is that they are sometimes used to suppress other problems and it is a vicious circle because of the addictive part that leads to new problems.”


But, as I wrote earlier, social media is neither the only nor the biggest factor in that equation.

How they sold us a cheap Skynet drama

And speaking of equations, the author’s need to screen artificial intelligence (AGI) like a huge Skynet will mortify anyone in that field.

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There are hundreds of feature scenes where Facebook’s AI is shown in an extremely humanized way: Three white men (with the exception of Rashida Richardson, which I will touch on later) dramatically manage the enterprise-style command center, serving that sinister content to a naive user. They probably wanted to get closer to how this “black box” artificial intelligence works and thus missed the full meaning of machine learning.

For starters, classifying extreme amounts of content is primarily a technical challenge – Facebook currently has 2.7 billion users. Each of these users has an average of 338 friends and probably as many “liked” business pages. Facebook’s Research blog describes that their data warehouse “Hive” collects at least 4 petabytes of data every day. It is only artificial neural networks that can solve this scalable “what to show to whom” challenge. 

But these algorithms are not slave-owning Skynet, that is, conscious and vigilant general artificial intelligence. The real situation is diametrically opposed to it.

There is a big debate in the AI ​​field – are these algorithms actually advanced statistics!? Or as the saying goes, “When you’re fundraising, it’s AI. When you’re hiring, it’s ML. When you’re implementing, it’s logistic regression. ” I’m already announcing a topic for the second column, but be sure to read a great essay by Joe Davison on that Skynet debate.

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Secondly, it’s not exactly that Facebook, Google, or Twitter don’t know what their algorithms are doing. Since the 1970s, there is a concept of XAI, ie. eXplainable Artificial Intelligence, in which a large number of developers work on AI modules where it is known how the algorithm came to some conclusion. Translated, not all boxes are exactly that black.

But there is one more important point; Facebook and Google hide their algorithms precisely to prevent system gaming, and the documentary consciously ignores it. The 90s SEO history has taught us that algorithmic systems are abused by a minority of black hat users and platforms therefore protect their algorithms like there’s no tomorrow.

It’s the lazy editors of Croatian portals who would mostly use the possible transparency of Facebook feed rules, serving us theirclickbait truth. On the other hand, the author describes that social networks have enormous power in the distribution and classification of content that is by no means polished and that is, therefore, a valid problem.

Several prominent researchers have described the issue of Google SERP and Facebook AI algorithms such as Safiya Noble, Sarah T. Roberts and Siva Vaidhyanathan, but the author ignores these works and decides to cheaply scare viewers and force Skynet drama.

The digital advertising machine continues its merry way

Part of the documentary revolves around the deliberate design of the user experience so that the user is as attached as possible to watching the ad. Talking about the design ethics is a hit topic and I don’t think anyone disputes the problematic digital advertising machine, coming out of the tireless A/B testing of Silicon Valley techbro designers.

Ars Technica published the info that production teams manage 100 times more code in 2020 than in 2010, and it is known that Amazon designers run dozens of simultaneous A/B tests every second to speed up the thickening of your Kindle library. The fusion of the described artificial intelligence, interactive design and sales of advertising space is so layered that it is not strange to show the practice of design teams that are more “playing” than ethically doing business.

The ethics of the decision is also complicated by the moment where the discipline of UX design changes from day to day (which Iva and Martina from Neuralab have already talked about), ie. today’s pop-up is tomorrow’s forbidden fruit.

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Jim Salter, ArsTechnica (Sourcegraph)

What the documentary also correctly points out is the problem of the root business model itself – the sale of advertising space. It IS really weird that we live in a time where BigTech companies are dropping shark-proof light cables into the depths of the Atlantic, Alexa and Siri are talking to each other, and Google AI is beating human Go players – all for the purpose of selling glorified banners!?

Remember, the share of Adwords in the entire Google business is about 70%, while with Facebook the share of the advertising revenue pillar is approximately 98%. True, when the Facebook Shop arrived we had already commented on how Zuck is trying to disperse the earnings structure, but that is a drop in the red ocean.

Tears of a prodigal son

Forcing advertising as the main business model stems from the dynamics of platforms with VC funds, hockey-stick growth addicts. Namely, all digital platforms initially depend on capital injections, and it is to be expected that the funds will want a quick return on investment, which is a grind that turns even after going public (IPO).

Translated, research into more modern, inclusive and ethical business practices is not on the list of priorities, and we also described such “move fast, break things” ShOps on Netokracija.

The documentary ignores this VC dynamics + attributes the blame mainly to the benevolent libertarian designers who “wanted to do good in the world, but screwed up”. Such a narrative of technological determinism is childish and has been criticized many times, for example in Barbrook’s/Cameron’s classic The Californian Ideology, which in 1995 says, among other things:

While learning from the can-do attitude of the Californian individualists, we also must recognise that the potentiality of hypermedia can never solely be realised through market forces.


It’s ironic to listen to white middle-aged men complaining about their own creations when the underlying problem (which they created themselves) is the lack of inclusion of women, minorities and associations that would indicate the shortcomings of proposed design decisions.

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And this is also the biggest omission of the documentary – giving space and time for hundreds of ostentatious techbro guys to shed tears in front of the cameras, the authors actually support the status quo by ignoring the main problems. The production team is thus denying time and space to activists like the Electric Frontier Foundation who have been pointing out Silicon Valley’s lack of inclusiveness for over three decades.

Who’s to blame (for our screen time)?

And what conclusion to draw at the end? The Social Dilemma is undoubtedly a valuable visual achievement that will not be difficult to spend 2 hours watching. It remains a pity for a relatively one-sided and shallow premise that could (and should) be worked out in more detail! Note that:

  • Blaming exclusively social networks is unconstructive. That same ice cream shop you went to in the beginning also designs that perfidious cheesecake, but it’s not its fault for your overeating.
  • Inclusion is a fundamental problem in the IT industry, a rare industry in which the number of women is continuously declining. It’s time to get involved in Ladies of New Business and listen to a colleague’s point of view.
  • Don’t fall for oldschool characters who, by denigrating one value system, are actually selling their TED talk. And speaking of such… domestic editors are very much to blame for the placement of fake news and the general state of the media space. Vanja has already written about it on Netokracija (in response to past social media polling).
  • And lastly, turn off the fucking notifications. Online content is consumed when it suits you, not when others ask for it (or “asynchronously” as it is commonly said in the office) so see if it makes sense to treat the “photo tag” as an important phone call.

Show notes:

Krešimir Končić
Krešimir Končić Owner at Neuralab

Ex QBASIC developer that ventured into a web world in 2007. Leading a team of like-minded Open Source aficionados that love design, code and a pinch of BBQ. Currently writing a book that explains why ‘coding is the easier part’ of our field.

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