The social media dilemma and its consequences

I watched ‘The Social Dilemma’ a few days ago, the Netflix semi-dramatised documentary exposing the business model behind social media, and what it’s doing to world society.

A beautiful picture of Earth from 1.6 million km sunwards. NASA, public domain.

I wasn’t surprised; the social outcomes have been clear for a while. The ‘confirmation bubbles’ to which social media reduces people are a function of the way in which it’s been geared to make money. But the documentary didn’t go far enough. There’s also the nature of social media as a tool for interaction. It’s a limited and distorting caricature of the ways people interact in person, but it’s being used as a substitute for the real thing.

How limited? The documentary looked at the way photo filters are distorting self-image – highlighting the way it’s damaging children, particularly; and at the way ‘likes’ have become a mechanism for validating self-worth. But there’s also the nature of the comment system. Usually these are composed quickly. They are short. And they are written, which gives these transient words greater gravitas than a passing remark in conversation. One outcome is that the reader usually fills the gaps with their own content – in effect, projecting themselves on to the commenter. You know:

Commenter 1: I prefer grapes to bananas.

Commenter 2: So you don’t like bananas?

Commenter 1: I never said that.

Commenter 2: You did. And what about all the other fruit? Banana-hater! You must be a socialist!

If anybody is wondering how so many Facebook discussions end up descending to abuse in three milliseconds, this is the mechanism. It’s also how ‘cancel culture’ works. And it provokes very real issues. People end up hating each other for no actual reason, other than being triggered by what they’ve, themselves, projected into somebody else’s words. And people who don’t follow along risk being ostracised.

That same reductionism is also how memes work. And it’s how matters are swiftly stripped of nuance and reduced to polemic. Of late I’ve been seeing memes that manage to combine both the false-cause fallacy AND the false-premise fallacy, all in two lines laid over a photo of someone who never said those things. When that’s mixed with the ‘business model’ the result is a self-reinforcing cycle that confirms an ever-narrower set of beliefs.

What I am getting at is that the business model alone – the way that social media has monetised itself – isn’t the sole issue. There’s also the way that this style of communication works, mixed with human nature.

All of this is an anthropologist’s dream, of course, because the direction it’s taken tells us an awful lot about humans and their real nature. The fact that false information spreads far more quickly than fact, for instance, is intriguing. The ease with which hate emerges and the way kindness is so often lost is telling. What does that tell us about how people think? But the opportunity to better understand human nature doesn’t reduce the fact that the way social media has been monetised, structured, and operates, is leading society down a very dark path.

Could things have gone differently? Quite possibly. The business model is, without question, a function of the neo-liberal framework around which economies, and economic thinking, has been wrapped for the past two generations. Profit at all cost – profit without limit, by any means. Add to this the way – as the documentary mentioned – that regulation has fallen behind, and the result is a neo-liberal wet dream: a system that has no restraints over its corporate conduct, free to make unlimited sums of money irrespective of the human consequence.

To a large extent, I think, this is one of the main drivers behind that dark path. But to this I’d also add the nature of the medium, which – in effect- offers a reductionist framework for people to interact with each other that distorts those interactions in insidious ways. Is there a way around this? Sure. But society has to get out of the hole it’s dropped into first. That will be the challenge – and just now, as I watch the insanity spread over immediate issues such as Covid-19, unleashing pent-up hate and anger that has been bubbling away for a raft of other reasons, I have to wonder whether our civilisation will survive. Thoughts?

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2020

10 thoughts on “The social media dilemma and its consequences

  1. I watched this as well. My immediate thought was fear. Fear for civilization and fear of what’s to come. If we this dependent on social media (physically & emotionally), then what does that say about us as people? How can we depend so much on the number of likes we receive? Why are we so addicted to that device in our pockets that gives us notifications?What does it do to us to always be so tired to social media?

    I am a child of the 90s or part of the millennial generation. I am the last generation that grew up playing outside. We still had video games and TVs but we still went out to have fun. Kids today… all they do is stay inside on their devices playing games, sending messages, video chatting… their entire lives are on their devices. There are so many bad effects that will happen: obesity, eye problems, health problems from lack of exercise…

    I’m glad though this show came on the air, if only as a reminder of what we as a society has become and what we will continue to become. So how do we stop this? How do we stop becoming mindless zombies?

    I guess the best solution is to turn off our phones, tablets, computers.. schedule in some time outside and have some fun… I also think we need to educate the children on how to use social media. We need to remind the children to always be on high alert and to be careful. But most importantly, we need to remind the children that at the end of the day it’s just pixels and words on a screen. They don’t determine who they are or their self-worth as individuals.
    It’s so much harder to be a child now than when I was growing up in the 90s/early 2000s…

    Sorry for the long post. Hope this answered your question.

    Liked by 4 people

  2. I promised another friend I’d watch this documentary. Guess I’ll have to. I’ll be ready to comment sensibly after that, but I suspect I won’t enjoy it much.

    But as a SF writer, perhaps I should cheer up! So much dystopian gloom and doom!

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  3. We’ve turned into Pavlov’s dogs, and while I’d be happy to leave my phone off permanently, I would be lost without the internet on my pc. I’d like to think that the current fetish for likes will fade but…it’s not, is it? The question really boils down to: why are our egos so very frail?

    I guess we’ll know the answer to that when the social experiment ends. I hope it ends with a whimper not a bang.

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  4. I see this on YouTube all the time. Comments descend into staggering abuse for the most ridiculous reasons and end up with two people hurling insults at each other.

    But it’s the same everywhere. Twitter is notorious. The same for Facebook. Straw man arguments, deindividuation, revisionist histories (I saw one bloke on Facebook write, “There was absolutely nothing right-wing about the Nazis.”) and it’s getting worse.

    There’s also lots of reducing complex topics into predictable soundbites. As it’s easy and you don’t have to think very hard. I criticised Jeff Bezos once and was accused of “jealousy” and needing to work harder etc.

    I generally avoid it all now for mental health benefits. Keeping my sanity in check.

    Anyway, JJ Abram’s documentary on the Challenger disaster is interesting viewing. Documentary just launched on Netflix. That’s my recommendation.

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  5. I wonder if it’s the business model so much or just human nature when faced with a medium like this. Perhaps social media only exacerbates what is already there. It seems to me that the more we feel protected by things like distance, or like-minded cronies, the more outrageous we can be. When in Facebook, for instance, we “can” say obnoxious, mean-spirited things to one another with no real repercussions. Try saying similar things in a biker bar, and you’ll end up in a hospital. When it becomes “safe” to be crappy to each other, apparently, we’ll do it.

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  6. Reblogged this on I can't believe it! and commented:
    Matthew Wright addresses the important problem of social media and how it reflects our economic system and its (lack of) values.
    Fortunately, most blogs I have come across do not show symptoms of the kneejerk insanity of instant response. So maybe the ‘blogosphere’ is one of the more civilised areas of social media?

    Liked by 2 people

  7. I watched it a few days ago and while I had been leaning towards getting off of Facebook, the movie pushed me to do it. Facebook was how I invite people to look at my blog, but I just don’t care anymore because I can’t seem to reconcile what I’ll call “the war of the memes,” and the constant passive aggressive attacks, the dehumanizing of people who don’t have the same beliefs, the descent by some close friends into the world of conspiracy theories, the constant defending of the indefensible and the fact that many of my friends on social media I haven’t seen in ages,( some since grammar school,) so why should I care what they think? But if I de-friend them, it’s seen as an affront, so if I deactivate my account, I just am not there anymore. It’s not personal anymore. I simply don’t want that much information, insight about people I care little about. I live abroad so this has been a hard decision, but one that’s important especially since many of the people back in the state where I live I feel have been radicalized by the nationalistic cult because of social media and Fox News. The title really says it all, it’s definitely a “social dilemma.”


  8. I couldn’t agree more, although I haven’t seen the film. I fell foul of social media years ago blaming it’s “peculiar filters and amplifiers” – but the term ‘social media’ now means a specific group of providers and in reality that is misleading. Luckily the internet is much more than the go-to, top of google, commercially-driven platforms. That is to say, I try to find something positive in amongst all the trash, something good about the internet and the fact that we can all hook up across the globe like right now. We don’t call WordPress, or Soundcloud, social media for some reason, and I belong to other sites where there is absolutely no trolling, no advertising – and ‘meet’ some lovely people. That’s not to say that there isn’t a very real problem driven by what you describe, there is, but it is a two-sided coin. I hope the current crisis will actually bring people to their senses, if that’s not being a bit churlish, you know, Covid is real no matter what you say on Twitter.

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