“There are only two industries that call their customers ‘users’: illegal drugs and software.” - Edward Tufte
It's not a shocker to anyone that social networks are actively trying to create an addict out of you. We've all read the stories about Silicon Valley techies traveling to Vegas to study how gamblers' interact with slot machines, trying to replicate in their own software that dopamine hit of pulling the lever. You know that Facebook sells the data they tease out of you when you're looking at your screen. But what's the big deal? Who cares if you're getting more relevant ads?
As a software engineer I consider myself in tune with what the industry is doing: I pay attention to which behavioral psychologist's article is trending, who just had a cool AI breakthrough, why employees are leaving Google over ethics concerns. The stuff fascinates me, and I feel better about spending time on social media knowing how it works. I know what tricks they're trying to pull, and I'm okay with it. Just use an ad blocker and hit 'no' on those cookie popups. At least that's how I felt until watching The Social Dilemma.
One of the things that's struck me the most throughout this pandemic is how awful I am at time management. I'll work hard throughout the day looking forward to going on a walk after work, cooking, reading, any one of my hobbies. I'll sit down on the couch to unwind a bit after taking the dog out at 5PM, pull out my phone and browse the news, scroll reddit and Instagram for a few minutes.... By the time 9PM rolls around we've had dinner, watched a few episodes, and we're still sitting around on our phones.
This documentary has made me realize that I can't outsmart what these companies are doing. They've spent billions in design research to make their platforms as addictive as possible. We're all paying for mindless scrolling with our time, which I firmly believe we collectively undervalue. To make it worse, the scrolling isn't even mindless - it's making us more polarized. The number of worldviews I'm exposed to is shrinking and the amount of incomplete information I'm seeing is skyrocketing.
The way all the popular social media platforms use reinforcement learning will continue to polarize us, especially in the United States. The Facebook timeline I see is not the timeline you see, and we have different views of the world because of it. This sort of polarization in a society is what leads to violence and domestic terrorism. In downtown Boise a 17 year-old kid let loose a shot from his rifle in frustration on the grounds of the state capitol building during an anti-BLM protest. He was rallied there by 'three percenters' who were convinced of a social media rumor that antifa were heading to Boise to start a riot (they weren't). If you listen to the news, this incident sounds tame.
It's not even what might happen, it's what's currently happening that makes me want to take this seriously. Teen depression and suicide rates show a painful trend: since the advent of social media, preteens are committing suicide at a rate that's over 100% of what it was in the 2000s. This statistic isn't even shocking. Almost all of my peers could be diagnosed with anxiety. We don't seek help for mental health until things boil over. We've only been on social media since middle school - these kids are growing up on it.
There's too much good and change that social media has brought on to completely dismiss it as an idea, but in it's current form the bad overshadows the good. Companies like Facebook don't optimize for utility, they optimize for profit. Until that changes, I refuse to feed them as much of my attention as I have in the past. I'm deleting my Instagram account and switching to Flickr to share my photos. I'm unfollowing everyone on Facebook except for close friends, family, and the university meme page that I manage. I'm uninstalling social media and news apps from my phone. I'm paying for local journalism rather than getting hot takes from Twitter.
I hope you find some changes to make as well. Even if you don't, please at least pay attention to the problem. The Social Dilemma is a good start.