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Jeff Orlowski doesn’t miss social media. At all.
“I was honestly very addicted to social media a few years ago,” the Boulder filmmaker says. “I checked it countless times a day. I’d be trying to write a scene, and then I’d get a Facebook notification and it would completely distract me.”
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According to Orlowski’s latest documentary, The Social Dilemma, those Facebook notifications were working exactly as intended. The film illustrates the detrimental effects social media has on society and argues that these platforms aren’t simply being misused by fallible humans, but instead steering those humans toward their worst selves—insecure, uninformed, distracted, depressed, and, in some cases, radicalized.
Those ideas aren’t new, but under Orlowski’s direction, the documentary delivers them through some very powerful mouthpieces: The very people who helped build Facebook, Twitter, and their ilk appear in the movie to renounce their own work. Many say they’ve left the platforms entirely. Orlowski followed their lead, and after watching The Social Dilemma, which debuted on Netflix this week, you might, too (watch it here).
“I see parallels between the fossil fuel industry and the tech industry,” Orlowski says. “When we first discovered oil, it was this really great resource that had loads of opportunity. And only years later did we realize that it was really bad for the climate. I think the same applies to social media. Despite the individual benefits that might come from these platforms, there are consequences, both for the individual and for society, that we have to reckon with now.”
Viewers lauded Orlowski’s previous documentaries made under the umbrella of his Boulder production company, Exposure Labs. He followed nature photographer James Balog’s journey to catalog the rapid melting of icy landscapes in 2012’s Chasing Ice, the recipient of a News and Documentary Emmy award for Outstanding Nature Programming in 2014. Orlowski’s second film, Chasing Coral, tracked coral bleaching events in the ocean’s reefs, won an Audience Award at the Sundance Film Festival, and introduced the world to beloved Boulder coral nerd Zack Rago when it debuted in 2017.
It’s easy to see the link between sweeping aerial shots of ice-encrusted environs and underwater photos of once-vibrant coral leeched of its color by warming ocean temperatures. In comparison, The Social Dilemma, with its line-up of tech industry insiders, may feel like a bit of a departure from Orlowski’s earlier work. But Orlowski says it was never his plan to make only environmental films—shining a spotlight on forces irrevocably changing the world has always been the goal.
So when he saw tech insider Tristan Harris posting on social media about social media’s many manipulations, he was intrigued. The concerns Harris, a former Google Design Ethicist who studied how the search engine reshaped people’s minds and attention spans, seemed to mesh with another idea: filter bubbles. The topic of a Ted Talk by Eli Pariser, filter bubbles are the result of internet platforms’ race to feed users the information that will keep them coming back. The problem, of course, is that being shown only what we like inhibits us from learning new perspectives.
With these concepts in mind, Orlowski began asking lots of questions of lots of people. He talked to a former YouTube software designer, a former vice president of engineering at Twitter, the former president of Pinterest, and a former engineering lead at Facebook who invented the “like” button. Many have the word “former” before their titles because what they saw in Silicon Valley’s most iconic companies disturbed them—platforms designed to deliver dopamine hits to users’ brains, such as notifications that they’ve been tagged in a photo or received more “likes” on a post. Once users get on the platform, various details make it hard to leave. When a video nears its end, an algorithm will unearth another one it thinks you’ll like; those blinking ellipses when someone is composing a reply message are no accident.
Those interviews become the backbone for The Social Dilemma, which posits that the data mining enabled by the platforms, as well as the resulting mental health problems and social division, represent an existential crisis as foreboding as climate change. “My team and I were joking that we went to one group of scientists depressed about the world to another group of technologists depressed about the world,” Orlowski says.
Collapsing ice floes or coral-reefs-turned-ghost-towns come with strong visuals attached. What goes on behind a screen—or in a YouTube-watcher’s brain—is harder to depict. To remedy that abstraction, Orlowski’s team created a narrative component for the documentary. The family depicted struggles to come to grips with how social media is altering their lives. “I wanted viewers to be able to emotionally identify with the story,” Orlowski says, “and not have it just be a bunch of intellectual conversation around algorithms.”
A slightly zanier side of that narrative imagines Vincent Kartheiser of Mad Men fame as a series of puppet masters behind the screen, planning how to recapture a character’s attention with, say, a notification about an ex starting a new relationship.
For Orlowski, understanding how social media plays on people’s desire for connection and affirmation has made using those platforms feel gross. Though he does still have to use them—to promote the movie. “Our hope there is to share educational resources and materials that we have picked up along the way,” he says. The film’s site, thesocialdilemma.com, provides a link to a data detox kit to make your tech usage safer and saner, as well as advice about setting media usage rules with your family. The website even reveals platform machinations. Click on certain buttons, and a pop-up explains how they function to keep you tuned in.
“This project has completely changed my relationship with technology,” Orlowski says. “I am so much more conscious of when something is a tool that is helping me accomplish what I want to do in life, versus when it has its own goals to try to get me to do something for it.” He says he’s feeling happier, motivated, and more creative—so fans can hopefully expect another revealing project soon.