Pattern Matching

Where ‘The Social Dilemma’ Gets Us

The popular new Netflix documentary is a wake-up call with no answer

Will Oremus
OneZero
Published in
10 min readSep 19, 2020

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Image: Netflix

Welcome back to Pattern Matching, OneZero’s weekly newsletter that puts the week’s most compelling tech stories in context.

In the opening scenes of The Social Dilemma, the popular new Netflix docudrama about social media’s dark side, a series of nervous-looking interview subjects appear to stumble over a simple question: “What’s the problem?”

The film and its subjects — former employees of Google, Facebook, and other tech giants, along with a few outside critics such as the Harvard professor and The Age of Surveillance Capitalism author Shoshana Zuboff — spend the next 90 minutes throwing everything they have at that question. By the end, the viewer is left persuaded that there absolutely is a problem, and an urgent one at that, even if it’s a tricky one to pin down in a few words.

Yet, as we’ve seen time and again — most recently, with a former Facebook employee blowing the whistle on the company’s failures to stop election interference and misinformation campaigns around the world — sounding the alarm that social media is broken is easier than fixing it.

The Pattern

The people who helped to build social media now want to save us from it.

  • The problem, in The Social Dilemma’s reckoning, is that the advertising-based, engagement-fueled business model that has come to dominate the internet is fundamentally built on manipulation. Social media apps manipulate our brain’s psychology to keep us checking our devices and refreshing our feeds. The feeds themselves are full of content that in turn manipulates our emotions to maximize engagement and sell us things. And that targeted manipulation, which exploits our fears and biases and vanities, is not only bad for us as individuals, it’s tearing whole societies apart.
  • The film works best as a wake-up call to a mass audience that something is very wrong with the basic structure of social media, and that it’s infecting society at large as a result. It’s the sort of film that people knowledgeable about the tech industry’s workings will criticize, and find frustrating — and, in

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