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The Social Dilemma

The Social Dilemma

Whoa! The Social Dilemma, the new documentary on Netflix is getting a lot of buzz. It highlights the danger and “attention extraction” that’s at the heart of the algorithms we expose ourselves to throughout each day. (Full disclosure, I had to do some research on how algorithms work.) As the documentary highlights, “If you’re not paying for the product, you are the product.” Or more precisely as one of the commentators expands on the point, what they’re selling is the ability of the social media algorithm to manipulate our thoughts and actions just 1%. This really hit home. One of the lessons I preached as a coach was to get 1% better each day. What this documentary exposed was that social media is actively working to manipulate us 1% in a direction that’s most profitable for them—not for us to be better.

Even before I watched this documentary, I was pulling back on my social media usage. With everything going on in the world I found my social feeds less inspiring, and more anger and fervor-driven. There was a time I thought we might be able to have nuanced conversations, but the documentary showed me that it’s getting tougher for that to happen and … sadly, that it’s by design.

To be fair I’ve been an active participant. I recognize the value of social media and I’ll be the first to admit that I’ve used it in the past to my own benefit promoting UCLA competitions, speaking engagements, a book, social causes, these musings, and more. When social media “works” it’s an amazing and powerful tool. And there’s the dilemma… or The Social Dilemma.

As one of the commentators said, “How do you wake up from the Matrix when you don’t realize you’re in the Matrix?” I think watching this documentary is a good start.  The documentary is filled with experts who literally built the systems and they discuss how even they are manipulated. Fortunately, they’ve come up with a few pieces of advice that they share in the closing credits for how we can be more thoughtful since we are stuck in this dilemma.

Advice from the Pro’s:

*** Turned off notifications, uninstall apps. If you aren’t using an app remove it from your device. This prevents the maker of the app an opportunity to mine your attention. How would they do this? Notifications. One of the greatest ways to grab our attention is to buzz our device. Unless you absolutely want to be notified anytime of day, turn them off so that you only engage with your apps when you want to not when they want you to.

Pro tip: Depending on the app you might be able to limit the notifications so you still get some of their benefit. For example, some newspaper apps will let you control the types of notifications you allow, such as Breaking News, Local, Sports, etc. You can also put your phone into Do Not Disturb mode to prevent notifications when you need to focus for specific periods of time.

*** Never select the video recommended to you, always choose. Every time you click on something on the internet you’re feeding an algorithm data. And the Recommendations they feed you aren’t always what best matches your needs, but what will produce the most profitable outcome for the company feeding it. By actively choosing you are chipping away at that 1% manipulation.

*** Before you share, fact check. Take the extra step. If the content feels like it’s pushing buttons, it’s likely that it was designed to do so.

Pro Tip: Don’t get your news from social media. Subscribe to a newspaper instead.

*** Expose yourself to different points of view. This is a big problem today and it’s not entirely our fault. The algorithms feed us information that validates our points of view. This creates what they call an echo chamber. If we know the algorithms are skewing the information we see, we need to be active in finding points of view that will challenge that. This also means avoiding cancel culture. If you block and cancel everyone you disagree with you’re going to wind up in the same place.

*** Keep your kids off social media as long as possible. Many parents probably don’t know this, but there’s a law in the United States that protects the online data collection of children under the age of 13. This is why many social media websites—like Facebook and Twitter—technically don’t allow kids under 13 to create accounts. I know!! Some of the experts in the documentary said they don’t let their kids on social media at all or suggest holding out exposure to the platforms until at least high school. At minimum, one suggests establishing a firm screen time.

Pro Tip: You can set screen time limits on your device for specific apps that will literally block you from accessing them once you’ve reached that time limit—good for kids and adults! 

*** Control the outside environment. One of the experts said all his devices have to be out of the bedroom at a specific time every night. Again this is a step in being thoughtful about your choices and taking back a little bit of control. How many times have we all laid in bed scrolling through our feeds (getting manipulated) when our time would be better spent reading a good book or sleeping!

I recommend The Social Dilemma for every parent, child and person who has a social media account. I don’t know about you, but I have a love/hate relationship with social media and this documentary scared me and also made me feel like I better understand why things are they way they are.

What are your thoughts/tips on how to take control over our devices and accounts, short of doing away with them all together? 

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[…] views. I wrote about this a few months back when discussing the Netflix documentary, “The Social Dilemma.” And more recently I had conversation with UCLA Professor Tim Groeling from the […]

3 years ago

I’ve deactivated Siri and all voice commands. I refuse to get Alexa or anything voice activated. Once my phone was in my purse and locked while there was a conversation about something I had never heard of. Later that night ALL of the ads on social media were for that (the thing I’d never heard of…I can’t remember what it was)! There is no expectation of privacy with a device that is voice activated.