Movie Review: The Social Dilemma

If you’re remotely plugged into any kind of culture at all, you’ve probably heard about the new documentary The Social Dilemma. At the time of this writing, the show has broken into the Top 10 trending in the US (I know it hit at least Number 4 but was unable to confirm it’s peak position), and holds a 90% on Rotten Tomatoes, receiving rave reviews from many critics. There’s already a variety of reviews online from top-notch sites like The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and even legendary film critic Roger Ebert. Even so, I felt that I could offer a unique opinion on it as someone who both lives and breathes privacy but also strives to make those topics accessible to “the average person.”

About the Director & the Film

Jeff Orlowski is an experienced documentary film maker. Some of his more well-known works include Chasing Ice and Chasing Coral, both films about the impact of climate change on the natural world. He has done work for big companies like Apple, National Geographic, and Stanford and founded his own production company aimed at producing “socially relevant” films.

The Social Dilemma premiered on Netflix on September 9, 2020. The documentary features interviews with some of the most influential names in Silicon Valley, like the creator of the Facebook “Like” button, the founder of Pinterest, and the former “Design Ethicist” at Google. These are some of the very people who worked to make social media as addictive as it currently is. The documentary mainly focuses on Facebook and Instagram, though it does briefly mention other social media platforms, and discusses the addictive nature of social media, how it got to be that way, how it works currently, and the impact that addiction and algorithmic nature has on the real world ranging from rising depression rates in teens to social and political division and violence.

The Good

Before I saw the film, the thing that most piqued my interest was the people interviewed. While the film does bring in a few privacy proponents such as Shoshana Zuboff and Jaron Lanier, it primarily focuses on the former Silicon Valley executives. I personally think it carries a lot of weight when the very creator of something publicly says “this is not what I intended and it needs to change.” That’s very different from a completely removed person saying the same thing.

I also really like that the documentary doesn’t focus on privacy or security at all. I find frequently in my discussions with non-privacy people that such subjects aren’t very interesting to them. They feel intangible, nebulous, and unconnected. The average person doesn’t feel like they are at risk of being doxxed, stalked, or targeted. But things like political division, depression, and screen addiction: these are things that many people struggle with, and in the off chance that you don’t struggle with one of these issues personally you probably know someone close to you who does. These issues hit home for almost everyone, and I think this was a fantastic approach for the documentary to take.

The Bad

Let’s start off with something everyone can agree with: the re-enactments were a bad idea. I suspect the goal of the re-enactments was to create context for the interviews, give concrete examples and visualizations of how this stuff works, and to create something that the viewers could relate to rather than a bunch of white men talking about how this wasn’t what they meant to create. Instead, I found them very “after-school PSA” in their feel, their oversimplification, and their hyperbole. I’m not sure if the issue was the writing or the re-enactments themselves, but they didn’t really help the movie.

Despite the effort to create watchable content, two of the three people I personally know who watched the movie didn’t make it through. I want to caution against using anecdotal evidence – the movie hit #4 so clearly many people did finish it – but I think that says something. Out of those three people, the one who did finish watching it was thoroughly freaked out by it and is now very concerned about her privacy and use of social media. Of the two who didn’t finish, one said that it was boring and the other said it felt like the film was repeating itself. Both made it about halfway through the film. While I realize you can’t please everyone – and while I personally disagree with both of the negative reviews I was given by the two people – it is worth noting if you’re losing your very target audience to examine why. I constantly seek feedback on my site from people because I want to know where I’m failing to communicate what I feel are important issues and reach as many people as possible and convince them.

Final Verdict

I personally greatly enjoyed the documentary and I recommend it. For people within the privacy community, there isn’t much new to learn here. For people who aren’t, some of it will be obvious, the kind of stuff we’ve suspected all along but never confirmed. But for some people, some or much of the information will be eye-opening and brand new. A lot of what is said in the movie would sound like tin-foil hat conspiracy theories coming from someone like me, but it’s not coming from me; it’s coming from the people who built the system. Are they also being paranoid? It gives the claims a new level of weight and authority. I think that alone makes it worth watching.

More on the Movie

You can visit The Social Dilemma’s official website here. It is currently viewable on Netflix.

You can find more recommended services and programs at TheNewOil.xyz. You can also get daily privacy news updates at @thenewoil@freeradical.zone or support my work on Liberapay.