If You Think You Know Everything About Social Media, You Don’t.


The notion that social media is addictive and manipulative is nothing new. Neither is the fact that platforms like Twitter, Facebook and Instagram are intentionally designed to be that way.

But I don’t know if the insidious nature of these platforms have ever been explained to us in such confronting terms – with such alarming detail – as they are in Netflix’s latest documentary The Social Dilemma

The Social Dilemma is the culmination of a three-year project by Jeff Orlowski aimed at exploring how addiction and privacy breaches are actually features, not bugs, of social media platforms, and the film pulls together its argument through some pretty shocking insights from former executives of Facebook, Google, YouTube, Twitter, Instagram and Pinterest. In various interviews, Orlowski speaks with the men and women who helped build the world’s most successful platforms and now fear the effects of their creations on users’ mental health and the foundations of democracy. These insights are set against the backdrop of a fictional family who are all addicted to their iPhones, iPads and computers.

Despite being someone whose job is basically to be online, even I wasn’t fully aware of how everything I’ve come to love, hate, fixate on or forget when I’m scrolling is always – and I mean always – the byproduct of a bunch of coding. Take photo tagging for example:

 If you get an email saying that your friend has tagged you in a photo, of course you’re going to click on that email and look at the photo. It’s not something you can just decide to ignore and that’s because the designers have purposefully tapped into a deep-seated, historically proven, human personality trait. But as Jeff Seibert, a former executive at Twitter, pointed out, the question we should be asking ourselves is: “Why doesn’t that email contain the photo in it? It would be a lot easier to see the photo if it was just sitting there in our inbox.” And he’s right! It would take no effort at all for the design team to implement this change, but they don’t because (even though they’d love you to think it was), their job is not to make your life easier; their job is simply to recruit new users, generate new content and stimulate growth. And the best way they can do that is by getting you to visit the platform as often as humanly possible.

Or, for a different example, take the feature of those three little dots telling us when a person is “typing”:

This is another feature intentionally designed to keep us on our phones for longer. If you know your crush is in the middle of replying to something you’ve said, you’re not just going to put your phone down and do something else for an hour – you’re going to hang around to see what they’ve said! And if the app developers had left out those three little dots, you’d have no way of knowing they were typing and would likely put your phone away and do something else. All of these seemingly small and subtle features have been created by a team of engineers called “growth hackers” whose literal job is to hack peoples psychology in order to make companies and advertisers money.

The Social Dilemma covers everything from the spread of misinformation and propaganda material, to the rise in youth suicide, depression and anxiety which parallels the emergence of platforms like Facebook, to women’s increasingly warped perception of beauty and perfection.

This documentary is a must-watch for anyone who uses social media themselves or has a child who uses it. Because, as Tristan Harris, a former design ethicist at Google, said: “Never before in history have fifty designers – a bunch of 20 to 35 year old white guys in California – made decisions that impact two billion people.  Yes, humans were evolved to care about whether the people in our tribe think we’re good people – we know that stuff matters. But were we evolved to be aware of what 10,000 people think of us on any given day?”

Header image via Google