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The Social Dilemma and the Rise of the Clickbait Documentary

Why the Netflix movie falls short as a critique of Silicon Valley

Exposure Labs/Netflix

The Social Dilemma, director Jeff Orlowski’s buzzworthy Netflix documentary about Big Tech, starts casually, with the interviewees settling down in their chairs, taking their last sips of coffee, and making small talk with faint voices off-screen. It’s the part of the movie that is supposed to get cut in editing, but this is the film’s version of breaking the fourth wall, nudging us to see its subjects not as powerful and wealthy corporate leaders but as normal guys getting jitters before appearing on camera. They may have designed and monetized the social media platforms that the movie dissects, but they aren’t the villains.

In fact, the only villain of the film is fictional—a personification of an AI algorithm in a story line about a typical family’s struggles with social media, played by Mad Men actor Vincent Kartheiser. Throughout the film, he and his two evil sidekicks use a cartoonish console to manipulate an awkward high schooler, the idea being that all of us are being controlled in the same way. 

It seems like a waste of money to hire an actor to play the “algorithm guy” when there are actual algorithm creators being interviewed in the film. But The Social Dilemma is loath to assign responsibility for the collective illness that is the internet, other than to go on about the big and bad and powerful “system.” As a result, the movie is less an indictment of Silicon Valley and its creators than a primary example of the way the profit-driven algorithm has come to govern not just our social lives but also our relationship to art and culture.  

None of the information in the film is particularly new. Most of us know about targeted ads and have noticed predictive algorithms reflecting our search history back at us. We have read about fake news and Cambridge Analytica. Social media is addictive, obviously, which is one of the film’s central themes. What’s new is the purveyors of this information: the remorseful, self-aware warriors turned conscientious objectors of Silicon Valley. 

The film’s interviewees take turns lamenting the way their utopian dream of connecting people “lost its way” and explaining, to an increasingly eerie musical score, how social media instead became an extractive, addictive, psychologically damaging, and politically dangerous force. The problem is clear: Tech companies get their money from ads, making our online behavior their currency. This leads them to carelessly feed us cocktails of clickable posts, full of cute animals and family members, but also far-right conspiracies and dysmorphia-inspiring images of beauty.

In Orlowski’s hands, however, the root cause of this problem remains ambiguous. Tristan Harris, a former Google designer with the nickname “Silicon Valley’s conscience,” at one point starts a sentence that promises clarity—“There is a problem in the tech industry, and it doesn’t have a name, and it has to do with one source, like one…”—but never finishes it, his voice drowned out by somber violins.

The documentary accurately presents the social internet as a version of the public square, a microcosm of democracy, a platform for open communication. That this stands at odds with the actual purpose of our current platforms—to maximize profit—is a point that The Social Dilemma presents all the evidence for, but never quite makes. 

Though it criticizes the consequences of a privatized online sphere, such as the surveillance and commodification of our choices and the intentional addictiveness of social media, the documentary does not dare to suggest that corporations shouldn’t host the great bulk of our public discourse. Facebook’s business model is bad, yes, but the fact that a business model underlies the world of social media in the first place remains unquestioned. “I think we need to accept that it’s OK for companies to be focused on making money,” says Sandy Parakilas, former operations manager at Facebook and product manager at Uber. Jaron Lanier, a longtime Silicon Valley skeptic, eventually concurs: “I don’t hate them. I don’t want to do any harm to Google or Facebook. I just want to reform them so they don’t destroy the world.” 

It’s not that The Social Dilemma, to borrow from its own alarmist tone, is secretly implanting us with some evil neoliberal agenda (though it does at times seem like an elaborate commercial for the Center for Humane Technology, a think tank founded by a handful of the interviewees). It’s that, for all its trappings of a liberal exposé, it lacks any substantive political message other than a nod at “regulation.” As Facebook and Google veteran Justin Rosenstein lamely concludes, “By having these conversations … we can start to change the conversation.” 

The titular “dilemma,” then, isn’t Facebook or Twitter or Instagram’s to solve. It’s ours. Turn off your notifications! Delete some apps! Follow people you disagree with on Twitter! These are the solutions hastily fired off as the credits roll. The film’s website continues this list of inane suggestions on a page optimistically titled “TAKE ACTION,” including taking a “tech detox” and sharing the film on, yes, social media.

Under the thin veneer of an informative and activist message, The Social Dilemma betrays a reliance on emotional intensity, shock, and entertainment value to attract its viewers. The documentary genre fits awkwardly into this logic. Documentaries that aim to simply educate are decidedly not fun, and documentaries that reveal their main purpose to be a political agenda garner suspicion rather than large audiences. And yet, documentary’s proximity to reality has burdened it with these responsibilities, with the expectation that it can bring us closer to truth, to reveal something crucial that we hadn’t known before. If a film simply fulfills the need for immediate pleasure, is it still a documentary? Shows like Keeping Up With the Kardashians and Real Housewives certainly film “reality,” but we wouldn’t call them documentaries.  

John Grierson, a Scottish filmmaker and critic who was one of the first people to coin the term “documentary film” in the 1930s, advanced the idea, drawing from the work of radicals like Dziga Vertov, that documentaries can awaken people to liberal ideas and show them the necessity of social change. At the same time, he was wary of the role that commoditized entertainment played in the documentary’s pursuit of both artistic and political ideals: 

In an age when the faiths, the loyalties, and the purposes have been more than usually undermined, mental fatigue—or is it spiritual fatigue?—represents a large factor in everyday experience. Our cinema magnate does no more than exploit the occasion. He also, more or less frankly, is a dope peddler. This, then, is the atmosphere in which the maker of films is held, however noble his purpose or deep his inspiration.  

As media scholars David Lipson and Zachary Baqué write, entertainment requires the viewer’s passive absorption to become a numbing salve for the ugliness of our underpaid, overworked realities. Documentaries, on the other hand, are supposed to open our eyes to the harshness of this world and breed political commitment as a result. 

If the proliferation of documentaries on Netflix and other streaming services is any indication, entertainment platforms have found a way to square the circle. We are now living in what’s been called the “golden age” of documentary, in which every month or so there is a new viral sensation that elicits a flurry of tweets, memes, and articles. Documentaries about topics ranging from murderers to factory farms to tiger zoos are now described with words like “bingeable,” “insane,” and “freaky,” revealing their transformation from unsexy, educational “cinematic spinach” into profitable titans of the entertainment industry.  

A recent roundup of Netflix documentaries on Glamour UK starts with The Social Dilemma, lauding its disturbing candor. The recommendation is immediately followed by a reassurance: “Too heavy for you? Fear not, move swiftly onto Zac Efron’s new docu-series, Down to Earth With Zac Efron.” 

This is the mechanism of the clickable documentary complex—an infinite cycle of shock and comfort, of reveling in horror and promptly wiping your memory clean of it. You can go from Jeffrey Epstein’s victims to Zac Efron’s six-pack; from serial killers to cute dogs; from Fyre Festival to Taylor Swift; from meat industry evils to Chef’s Table: BBQ; from The Social Dilemma to the biopic of Bill Gates. 

Was the point of Tiger King really the five-minute montage about conservation meekly trailing eight hours of exotic freak show? Was the point of The Social Dilemma, a film hosted and financially beholden to a website that tracks and solicits our clicks, to change anything other than “the conversation”?

Reckoning with this dilemma means admitting that suffering, exploitation, inequality, and the degradation of democracy are as much a form of spectacle and diversion as the cuddly feel-good stories that we watch to escape these evils. As The Social Dilemma shows, entertainers are in no rush to hold us, or themselves, accountable.