the social dilemma
the social dilemma, a documentary by Netflix

Social networks: what is the problem?

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Fake news and polarization of the society are some consequences of technologies social network are using as explained in the social dilemma, a Netflix documentary.

The protagonists of this documentary were working at Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, Google, Uber in good positions. And they are concerned. The documentary premiered at 2020 Sundance Film Festival is starting with this question: what is the problem?

There is no such thing as a free lunch

John Ruskin

First, you need to understand the business model of social networks. The keyword here is monetization. Those products are free. But, if you are not paying for the product, then you are the product. Usually, the business models of social networks are driven by advertising. They are selling ads to their customers.

Secondly, your engagement in the network is key. A social network wants to keep people sticked on their screens. That’s why the infinite scroll is used by almost all social networks and now more and more e-commerce web sites. Its inventor Aza Raskin (who has been interviewed in the documentary) is now saying that he is sorry about his creation. Notifications is another technique to increase engagement: you click on that icon of your smartphone to check what’s new. Ellipsis (dot dot dot…) when your interlocutor is typing in a conversation is also here to keep you engaged. Engagement goes with another goal of a social network: growth. They will encourage you to invite more friends so that it becomes exponential. That’s how Facebook is now having 2.7 billion of active users as of the second quarter of 2020.

Then, the promise of social networks towards their customers (the ones who buy ads) it is prediction. You want to predict the behavior of the user. To predict, you need a lot of data and good models. It becomes even more scary when you start to understand about persuasive technologies. With those techniques, you can change someone’s behavior using social influence. What about changing your behavior to actually click on that ad and later buy this product.

Our phones and our social networks are now acting as a drug for most of us. Americans spend an average screen time of 5.4 hours on their mobile phones daily. Most mobile phone users check their phones up to 63 times daily. Social media is responsible for 2 hours and 24 minutes of global internet time spent online by an average user daily. We are addicted and we now also know the role of the dopamine,  It is a substance released in our brains when we take good food, when we have sex, after we exercise and… when we have successful social interactions. When you receive a Like, you had your dose of dopamine.

Another big surprise is the polarization of the society that comes with social networks. To have a better engagement, the algorithms of the social network will usually propose posts that goes with the always the same opinion, creating silos of conversation, ignoring the other camp arguments and eliminating the notion of debate, dispute or discussion. In social networks, MIT has been demonstrated that fake news are spread 6 times more faster than true news. Maybe it is because the truth is often boring and complex. Therefore, it is easier for a social network to make money with fake news as it is spreading more quickly. We can also doubt that a technology could distinguish between the truth and the false.

To summarize, social networks are build to make money buy selling ads, by driving your engagement, by encouraging you to participate to its growth, by predicting your behaviour using data, by changing your behaviour using persuasive technologies and by giving you social rewards with dopamine. This also goes with a biggest polarization of the society and an increase of fake news. Engineers created a Frankenstein monster that democracy powers and ethics has now to master and to frame quickly. This can only goes with better regulations. We need to take back the control.

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The social dilemma, Netflix

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