The Social Dilemma Review: Like Us And Get Crippling Depression.
I can’t even say put the phone down and read this because statistically you’re pretty likely to be reading this on a phone.
I don’t need to explain what social media is before I discuss The Social Dilemma. It’s used widely around the world for reasons ranging from pure to ignorant to nefarious and everything in between. This review will be shared on Twitter and Facebook, for example, and there is a chance that you will find it because of that. Failing that, you might see it on Google. Or I come to your house and force the link down your throat. I will do that, don’t tempt me.
The reason I bring any of this up–and got unnecessarily threatening–is because this new film by Jeff Orlowski takes aim at social media and its damaging effects on the people who use it. Let’s get this straight right off the bat: while the positive gains that have been made because of this particular invention are mentioned, they are glossed over. It’s not the focus, so if you want something that is a little more balanced in its motive, this is not it. That’s neither good nor bad, but you should be aware going in.
I don’t intend for my reviews to be laced with social commentary but it’s difficult to avoid that when it’s a documentary. It’s an especially arduous task when this delves so deeply into a topic that I am very much a hobbyist in: psychology.
The basic premise is that the developers of the various social media platforms that we use have come up with ways to monetize them incredibly well. Dangerously so. This involves finding weaknesses in our own brains in order to exploit them. Most people may be mildly aware of certain biases and weaknesses that we have, but even if you are it’s still laborious to not fall victim to the many tricks that these developers use.
Documentaries can also be hard to review sometimes. They can be poorly put together but contain such an important message that they become essential viewing. Or they can be immaculately crafted but be about something a little less significant. I was going to say “be about farts” but then I remembered that farting too much can be a medical issue.
I think I’ve gone off the rails here, so let’s bring it back. I deem this a crucial documentary to those who may not truly understand that crippling effects that social media can have on people, especially kids; specifically young girls, who seem to get impacted even more by this than young boys. Truthfully, and here comes a brag, I knew about a lot of the content covered in The Social Dilemma. Due to my aforementioned interesting in the social sciences, I have spent a decent amount of time reading the relevant literature. But that doesn’t mean that it didn’t deepen my knowledge on the subject, because it did. Hearing the experts–most of whom were essential in either creating or monetizing these platforms–added a lot of legitimacy to the research that I’ve read. So even if someone is well-read, it’s still worth a watch. It’s also worth a watch if you’re at all interested in how evolution can sometimes be at odds with technological advancement.
Despite sometimes having difficulty reviewing documentaries as films and not just vehicles for whatever message they need to relay, they still need to be held to a certain filmmaking standard. Netflix marketed this as a “documentary drama hybrid” and when it attempts something more dramatic it feels poorly paced and written at best, superfluous at worst. Skyler Gisondo–hot off The Binge–plays Ben, a teenager who spends all his time on his phone, at the detriment of his real life. I don’t know how they thought of that characterization, it’s amazing. [Editor’s note (that’s me too): I checked my phone at least five times already while writing up to this point.]
Gisondo is not a bad actor but the material he–and the other actors–are given doesn’t serve the subject matter justice. It’s downright hokey. It’s never given time to breathe because this is straddling a line between fiction and non-fiction at all times. The dialogue is just there to make the point, to move you from point A to B as quickly–and coincidentally roughly–as possible. This means that the story doesn’t progress organically and you can’t ever care about the characters. You’re expected to care just because of the heaviness of what’s going on on the other side of the film, but it doesn’t work.
Even though Orlowski juxtaposes the fictional aspects with what’s currently being talked about by the talking heads, there was never a time where just having some kind of b-roll wouldn’t have been more pleasant and more engaging.
With that said, there was one facet that appealed to me: the music. In the opening moments there are engineers and other figures talking; that is followed by a montage of the fictionalized family drama, which is contrasted with actual news footage. Despite the deficiency of the fictional phases, it was too early to be annoyed by them, and Orlowski layered this with some affective music. The soundtrack hit a balance between eerie, grave and familiar, which in turn sums up the experience of social media in my estimation. Some moments were documented with something that sounded ripped from a cyberpunk film, and while maybe not intended, it was commentary on where we could go–or, depending on who you ask, where we’ve already gone.
This is such an oddly specific part that I like, but anytime Jonathan Haidt showed up it was a good time. That man is amazing. I know his novel with Greg Lukianoff The Coddling of the American Mind–which is fantastic in its own right–is what most people discuss these days, given the circumstances, but I strongly recommend The Righteous Mind to everybody I talk to. With the amount of time I spend praising that book you would think I wrote it. Involving him here was not at all shocking and still hugely commendable.
So is The Social Dilemma a victory for Netflix or another example of their uneven film programming? It’s flawed but it’s undeniably entertaining. It doesn’t overstay its welcome and outside of the fictionalized parts it’s often informative. Social media is such an umbrella over all of society that it’s imperative that we are made aware of the manipulation that takes place in order to get us to check our phones… even if knowing so will not instantly allow us to break the routine of falling victim to it. It’s a start.
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SIGNIFICANTLY MORE PLEASANT THAN SEEING PICTURES OF YOUR EX ON FACEBOOK
The Social Dilemma is extremely relevant to our times and of special interest to anybody who loves psychology. The drama aspect of the documentary drama hybrid often falls flat but those sore spots aren’t enough to even come close to burying the critical message that the flick broadcasts.