In 2017, director Jeff Orlowski noticed that his tech friends were starting to talk about the larger societal issues created by their industry. They were talking about the negative effects of social media and search engines leading to real-world damage, from violent protests and misinformation to abuse of privacy and impacts on mental health.
âIt really turned into an investigation of what our technology is doing to society,â Orlowski said during the presentation of TheWrap’s Emmy Screening Series of his film âThe Social Dilemma,â presented by Netflix. âWhat is Big Social doing to society? It was really the underlying question that motivated the making of the film.
Released on Netflix in 2020, the documentary delves into conversations with former employees of all the major tech companies behind these apps and devices. In addition to topics from companies like Google, Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter, the film also features experts in politics, health, and data science who offered their take on the contribution of technology to some of the issues. current ones we face in electoral hacking, loneliness and addiction.
But it’s not just the offline issues the company grapples with – the growing issue was also what was going on behind the scenes, inside these tech giants, where entire teams of engineers and of designers are working to keep users glued to their platforms, engaging as much as possible and using their activity and psychology against them.
The creators behind many of the app’s features we know and use, including Facebook’s “Like” button and the algorithms that drive many social media and search platforms, speak out in the film and wonder if their products and ideas have really had a positive impact. impact in the world.
At the same time, these leaders began to effect a change within the tech industry that involved the creation of best practices and greater awareness in these tools and applications. They stressed that there was an urgent need to rethink some of the characteristics and business models of these large tech companies, and many began to question the ethics and responsibilities of the actual operation and design of these platforms.
During the first year or so, Orlowski and his team began to follow his friend Tristan Harris, president and co-founder of the Center for Human Technology. Harris was a former Google design architect who worked on design ethics at the search giant. Harris has become an expert on how tech companies compete for our attention and fuel addiction and polarization.
As they began to interview subjects, the list of people continued to grow. Because it was such a big topic with so much material to cover, at the start the team also discussed turning the project into a series. They could easily have filled six to eight hours of content, Orlowski said.
âWe’ve been introduced to different topics with every interview we’ve done,â said Larissa Rhodes, producer of the film. âIn some cases, it was difficult to get people to want to talk about their work in front of the camera orâ¦ even the reality of understanding how important this issue really was. On the other hand, there were tons of people who were very keen to talk about the issues they were seeing in space and really wanted to be part of the solution and how they see their own involvement in it.
Since many of these tech companies were high-profile companies, production was pretty quiet, Orlowski said. They didn’t want to risk anything leaking while they were doing it. However, after the film’s release, Facebook was the only company mentioned in the documentary that responded publicly. Following the January 6 riots on the U.S. Capitol a few months after the post, Facebook also began trying to change its actions internally after close scrutiny.
Some of the creators of this project were also involved in earlier projects including âChasing Iceâ and âChasing Coral,â which also investigated documentary pieces exploring the world’s changing glaciers and coral reefs. These projects sought to expose the invisible problems of the climate.
“It was interesting coming from a movie we made before, where we found an interesting way to show people a problem in a way they had never seen before, by witnessing the change that is taking place. produced in coral reefs, âsaid Davis Coombe, editor and writer. .
Writer Vickie Curtis has said that âChasing Coralâ and âThe Social Dilemmaâ are more related than people realize when it comes to intrigue. While the first is about a climate issue, she said, both are actually facing an existential crisis in the modern world.
“The existential issues at the level of the crisis are really hard to capture on screen,” she said. “It’s hard to grasp the scope and scale because you can’t point your camera at all of humanity and say, ‘Look what’s at stake.'”
The documentary is interwoven with a fictional story that takes people into some of the experiences behind the screen, the reality that exists on the other side of their devices. Orlowski’s original idea was to show people how technology and algorithms are making choices about how to bring users back to platforms and engage them. The algorithms are all driven by serving ads to people at the right time, making them invite other people to the platform and get more of their attention.
“This is how we imagined the character story of Ben and his family, each grappling with a different part of the beast of Big Social, whether it be the opportunity for more bullying or extremism. political, âCurtis said. “You just have to go from your real life to your on-screen life.”
It is a system in which 3 billion people are “plugged into the system,” she added. And part of the bigger problem that the movie tries to illustrate is that these companies have immense control over information and over how people interact with all of that information.
Throughout the project, some of the team found themselves logging out of their social media accounts. Some of them never really used social media before that, but working on this film definitely changed their perspective on how they use technology.
And after about a year since the film’s release, the team behind “The Social Dilemma” have engaged in dialogue with more than 85 policymakers around the world who want to tackle the issues depicted in their film.
âWe are hearing a huge change in tone and content in what regulators and policymakers believe is possible and necessary to do on this front,â Orlowski said. âThere is a model that people can pay for that can really be designed for the general public. Both whispers within business and policymakers, we’ve heard a huge turnaround in what the future will look like. “