‘The Social Dilemma’ excels as a documentary, but fails as a drama

The Netflix film should’ve focused on the facts

Screenshot from 'The Social Dilemma.'
Credit: 
Netflix
Society has a social media addiction. Netflix’s new documentary-drama hybrid, The Social Dilemma, not only exposes this truth, but frames our dependency on smartphones as a reality on track to self-implode. 
 
The documentary-drama opens up with a series of interviews with former employees of Big Tech companies like Facebook, Google, and Instagram. As the people who created and programmed these social media platforms, they know how compelling the apps can be—they helped design them.
 
It’s unnerving to hear these tech experts speak about how scared they are of the programs they’re partially responsible for, even if some of their risks are largely common knowledge.
 
Most people are well aware that Instagram and Facebook are, first and foremost, businesses, hellbent on making as much money off their users as possible. But the film draws a far scarier conclusion: social media is addictive, and it’s changing our behaviors in real life. 
 
Since the rise of social media in the 2010s, high schoolers are less likely to date. Kids as young as 10 years old are experiencing anxiety and depression in greater numbers than ever before. Suicide rates, especially for girls, are on the rise. Politics are more divisive than ever.
 
The Social Dilemma claims social media is to blame, and the numbers don’t lie. 
 
Social media, despite all its advantages, is a toxic place. Even though many of us already know this, the film forces us to consider its implications. Online toxicity is translating into our everyday lives, changing the way we act beyond our screens and driving us apart.
 
But where the film excels with hard facts and first-hand accounts from Big Tech companies, it fails at creating a convincing drama element.  
 
As the film progresses, it interweaves its interviews with a dramatized portrayal of a high schooler’s addiction to his phone. As he scrolls through social media, we’re transported behind the screen, where three men existing in some Black Mirror-esque reality manically push buttons, sending him advertisements and video suggestions in hopes of holding his attention for as long as possible.
 
While the attempt to portray what Artificial Intelligence (A.I.) is doing behind-the-scenes is admirable, the film takes it in an unrealistic direction. As many of the tech experts in the film point out, A.I. isn’t a person; it’s a computer. In the case of social media, A.I. is programmed to make predictions about you based on your user history, but it’s not some malicious trio studying your every move, as the dramatization suggests.
 
When the boy tries to go a week without his phone, the men behind the screen send him a ping that draws him back into the social media sphere, plummeting him into a night spent scrolling through his ex’s photos. After this, he can’t pry himself away: he loses interest in both soccer and his crush, instead devoting his time to YouTube conspiracy theories.
 
We’re all victims of the endless social media scrolling, but the drama takes this to the extreme. It portrays today’s teens as not only addicted, but slaves to their phones, no longer thinking or acting for themselves. 
 
Smartphones have become a crutch for today’s youth; they occupy our dull moments and give us an escape 
from awkward encounters. But, in most cases, they don’t stop us from living our lives. We don’t decline social outings to scroll on our phones (though we might scroll while on said social outings). To suggest otherwise is both unrealistic and simplistic. 
 
At the end of the film, tech experts agree that we need to tear down the social media system and rebuild. The men behind the screen vanish, leaving only one. The boy is freed from captivity and even exchanges a greeting with the man who once controlled him. 
 
It’s an absurd ending to an otherwise eye-opening film. Instead of trying to dramatize their point, the producers should’ve stuck with the substance of the movie: the interviews. The facts were unnerving enough. The unnecessary dramatization took away from the hard-hitting facts, transporting us into a world that tried too hard, and failed, to accurately replicate our own. 
 
The Social Dilemma, flaws and all, is an important watch. But next time Netflix wants to make a ‘hybrid’ anything, I suggest they stick to a single genre.
 

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