‘The Social Dilemma’: Viewer discretion advised

Watch this non-documentary, now on Netflix, at your own risk. At the very least go into it with more than a grain of salt. Because — calculatingly, it really seems—the film triggers all the old fears and anxieties about the Internet and social media, pre- and post-Cambridge Analytica, without leaving much hope that solutions are possible.

Not that there aren’t some good and brilliant people in there asking all the questions many have been asking for a long time and saying all the same things that they’ve said elsewhere (you will probably recognize Jaron Lanier, Tristan Harris, Shoshana Zuboff, Roger McNamee and others). It’s just that the cheesy sci-fi-style portrayal of an algorithm as three sociopaths at an instrument panel toying with helpless teenagers doesn’t support their arguments very well. Nor does the dark, scary dramatization of a family’s smartphone struggles. Those parts are pure manipulation. Which is interesting. It’s like using unethical methods to take the moral high ground.

Not all crash test dummies

But there are some great dinner table and classroom talking points in the film if everybody goes in fully informed that it mashes up fact and fiction, leaves you with a gnawing sense of helplessness and paints a very dark picture that represents all social media users as addicts, crash test dummies (not the Canadian rock band) or sitting ducks. [Teens who feel insulted by the way they’re portrayed in this film deserve to be heard.]

Then there are the arguments about social media’s business model threaded in. None are new (please click to my blog for some discussion on some of the arguments), nor is the ad-supported “free” content model that some social media critics think arrived on the planet with social media. What is new is the blend of that advertising model the consumer products giants taught Facebook and our data.

Moving past data-mining

In the film, former Facebook and Google engineer Justin Rosenstein had the most compelling analogy: “We’re the earth that’s mined for profit — our attention, our data are mined for profit…. The attention extraction model is not how we want to treat human beings.”

That right there is the core issue we all need to discuss, without dramatization and with many more perspectives than those in The Social Dilemma. That, and what to do about it.

A new-old business model

How do public companies that depend on our data to maximize profit for shareholders give us control of our data? None of the people interviewed in the film has an answer to that. I think the beginnings of an answer can be found in a new-old model and movement that a professor at The New School in New York, Trebor Scholz, coined “platform cooperativism” — post-“sharing economy” (beyond Uber, TaskRabbit and AirBnB), which also didn’t give us control of our data. Cooperatives are owned and run by their members. Under that model, members’ data in digital-age co-ops is controlled by the members — i.e., each member owns and controls their own data.

While cooperativism dates back to the 19th century, people started developing co-ops using the Internet and digital tools to varying degrees just in the past 10 years. As chronicled by Scholz and Nathan Schneider, a professor at University of Colorado, Boulder, in the 2015 book Ours to Hack and to Own and convened at annual conferences in Berlin, Hong Kong and New York (so far), the movement has proponents and practitioners all over the world.

But this is not just AirBnB to FairBnb. In addition to member ownership, governance and control of data, digital cooperativism is also working to grow a much-needed more co-op-friendly business climate and legal structure and to develop a new financing and investment model. Schneider calls the latter “Exit to Community” (E2C), where startups exit to ownership by their communities rather than to acquisition or an IPO, as under the venture-capital model. Cooperators even have stakes in the very current Big Tech antitrust discussion, recently arguing in the Penn State Law Review that cooperative ownership “can mitigate the effects of monopoly and oligopoly, as well as advance the interests of consumers, workers, small business owners, and citizens.”

Beware the rabbit hole

So back to the film. If you haven’t already, go ahead and watch it. Maybe you’ll apply some critical thinking and see it for the dark, dramatic rabbit hole it is. There’s something ironic about creating a rabbit hole that warns against going down rabbit holes, right? If it makes you feel guilty or hopeless, you don’t deserve that. If it makes you think and look for solutions — such as mindfulness about tech use, critical thinking about media messages, kindness toward self and others, smart regulation and new business models you might want to support — that would be the best possible takeaway. I just wish I felt that was the film’s goal.

SIDEBAR: A bit more on digital cooperativism

Cooperativism has had its fits and starts. As Nathan Schneider put it, “Co-ops tend to take hold when the order of things is in flux, when people have to figure out how to do what no one will do for them.” And this just may be one of the most fraught, discontinuous, ripe moments yet — perhaps closer to a “post-growth” economy than ever (see The New Yorker).

Even so, look at how established cooperativism actually is today, with its principles laid out in Rochdale, England, in 1844, most recently updated by the Brussels-based International Co-operative Alliance (ICA) in 1995 and a Platform Cooperative Consortium established in New York in 2016.

According to the Consortium, “As much as 10% of the world’s total employment happens through co-ops. According to the United Nations, the world 2.6 million co-ops count over 1 billion members among them, plus $20 trillion in assets, with revenue that adds up to 4.3% of the global GDP. In the United States, a national survey showed that nearly 80% of consumers would choose co-ops over the other options if they had a choice.”

For more on this business model, see Ours to Hack and to Own, with 25 examples of platform co-ops (OR Books, 2016), Everything for Everyone for history and context (Nation Books, 2018) and Exit to Community, a primer and story “that connects the founders, workers, users, investors, activists and friends who have been trying to feel their way toward a better kind of startup” (Media Enterprise Design Lab and Zebras Unite, 2020).

Related links, resources, thoughts…

  • Other parts of the solution ecosystem: There are other moving parts to solving the political, economic, social, personal and other issues raised by our new global media environment. A whole solution set needs to be built out, consciously and collaboratively, and it has pre- and post-launch aspects for any digital product/service. Besides the business model, financing/investment, smart regulation and of course user care/content moderation, two others greatly needed are risk assessment built in before social product/service launches, as in other industries (see this important investigative piece just published in OneZero) and a network of independent helplines—a global network, or new “middle layer” of user care between the cloud and traditional, vertical-interest hotlines on the ground, e.g., Europe’s Internet helplines, Australia’s eSafety Commissioner’s Office and New Zealand’s Netsafe (see my post on this for more). The content appeals part that will come with the new Oversight Board, spawned and now spun off by Facebook, is another piece.
  • About the film in question: Two arresting highlights in Medium senior writer Will Oremus’s review…. 1) Ignores the positives for youth: He cites activist Evan Greer’s contention that “the film almost entirely ignores social media’s power to connect marginalized young people, or to build social movements such as Black Lives Matter that challenge the status quo. This omission is important, not because it leaves the documentary ‘one-sided,’ as some have complained, but because understanding social media’s upsides is critical to the project of addressing its failures.” 2) Ignores conditions underlying media: Citing podcast host Paris Marx in making the case “that The Social Dilemma misidentifies social media as the primary source of contemporary strife by overlooking ‘the underlying economic conditions: four decades of neoliberalism, rising inequality and corruption’” (for more on exactly that, see Peter Pomerantsev’s This Is Not Propaganda) and journalist and author Cory Doctorow contending that what Shoshana Zuboff (who appears in the film) “calls ‘surveillance capitalism’ is better understood as simply ‘capitalism’.”
  • Other reviews of the film in the New York Times, Slate and the Associated Press and, at The Verge, from Adi Robertson and Casey Newton
  • Of remorseful technologists: “The Prodigal Techbro” in The Conversation
  • An interview with Nathan Schneider on platform cooperativism in Logic magazine
  • Antidotes and resources for any parents triggered by the film’s dramatization: Parenting for a Digital Future, abook full of all kinds of parents’ experiences; “Social media rescues young people’s sanity” (June 2020) by Candice Odgers, PhD, in the Child & Family Blog, a project of the University of Cambridge (UK), the University of Princeton Future of Children project (USA) and the Jacobs Foundation (Switzerland); my review of an important book by Australian researchers cautioning against the “control paradigm” that has developed around youth digital safety and citizenship; PBS Kids’s Sara DeWitt’s TED Talk “3 Fears About Screen Time — and Why They’re Not True,” now with nearly 1.7 million views; and my posts on research about “screens kids use,” Part 1 and Part 2, as well as an antidote prescribed by psychologists for parents dealing with the media siege.

Disclosure: I serve on the Trust & Safety advisories of Facebook, Snapchat, Twitter, YouTube and Yubo, and the nonprofit organization I founded and run, The Net Safety Collaborative, has received funding from some of these companies. TNSC has not received any funding from platform cooperatives, however.

Youth advocate; blogger, NetFamilyNews.org; founder, The Net Safety Collaborative

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