The Social Dilemma

While watching the results of the US presidential elections slowly coming in on CNN at the beginning of November 2020 I switched to Netflix to watch the documentary ‘The Social Dilemma’ and found out afterwards that my view on the elections had completely changed. My students Information Management at a private University had told me that ‘The Social Dilemma’ was an eye opener for them and that a lot of the topics we discussed during my lessons were part of this documentary, this made me curious. It’s not always easy to explain the impact of data and information on society to the younger generation and explain them how social media has changed our daily life. The millennials are the first generation who grew up with smartphones en laptops and don’t know how the world looked like before.

‘The Social Dilemma’ is about how former and current IT-specialists from different backgrounds view the impact of what they created afterwards, while busy inventing all these great new social media tools like Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, LinkedIn, Pinterest etc. they had no clew what the impact would be. Looking back on my career as a IT project manager developing and implementing business software I have the same experience: sometimes a small change had far more impact than the issues I was busy with whole day and which sometimes were not used at all by the users who told me they needed it the most during the project.

But social media is something completely different from business supporting systems where the customer is also the main user and pays for the products and services. The business model for social media is completely different because because the users of social media can use all these tools for free and the social media companies make their money mainly with advertisements as part of other companies marketing strategy to sell their products and services. And when you do this smart en targeted at the right audience with clever tools which influence the buying proces of users of social media this strategy is almost always successful. And that’s why the top social media companies are so successful and make a lot of money.

The art of convincing someone to buy something by using behavioural science is not new, using social psychology to brand and market a product was invented in the US where the industry funded al lot of research on this domain. And with the availability of social media this impact on our buying process exploded. In ‘The Social Dilemma’ some of the people working for the social media companies are social scientist specialised in techniques to get potential buyers attention, take care they keep busy with the tool and come back all the time in the meantime influencing them in the direction of the product or service which is most likely to be bought. Just like showing a coca cola screen shot in a movie and selling more cola in the break of a movie but then only focussing on those who realy like cola and are likely to buy. We are being manipulated without being aware of this and when asked afterwards would probably not agree that this influencing works, but it does!

When asked how they see the future most of the interviewed persons who work or worked in the ‘Big Tech’ industry or who are doing research on this area are not very positive on how this development will turn out in the future. Will, under pressure of politicians and users of social media, the policy of social media be changed and made more transparent or is this only the begging and are we heading to a society where the companies have a lot of power and they not only influence our buying behaviour but als our thoughts and public life. See the current discussion around the US elections and corona and the role of social media spreading fake news.

In ‘The Social Dilemma’ Trump or corona don’t have much focus which is refreshing but what impressed me the most is the problem that tools like Google, Facebook or Instagram present the world to us as we like it to be and we only get information through their channel which is linked to the analyses of our personal data. And this takes care everybody thinks he or she os right and from everybody’s own perspective this is true. But from a society point on a macro level this does not bring us closer to a solution. One of the interviewed social media experts even predicted because of this a civil war in the near future. Not a good perspective from my point of view.

So, how to solve this?

It’s time we, the daily users of social media, take controle of our social media domain which is there for us and that we get controle over our own personal online data (POD). The more we become dependent of these social media tools for communication purposes, the more necessary this is. Social media data are part of and owned by the private domain and if someone from another domain wants to use our personal online data we should give them permission to use these data unless there is a legal reason for this. Social media are becoming more and more part of our normal way of communication and interference of organisations who want to influence us or make money out of this should not be possible.

I think ownership of your own personal online data is a necessary development and strangely Mark Zuckenberg from Facebook agrees:

I believe the future of communication will increasingly shift to private, encrypted services where people can be confident what they say to each other stays secure and their messages and content won’t stick around forever. This is the future I hope we will help bring about.

Mark Zuckerberg – A Privacy-Focused Vision for Social Networking

The big issue is that currently Facebook, Google, Apple etc. own these personal online data and it will be a big project to change their current business models and build their solutions around personal data not owned by themselves.

On the other hand it’s of course possible to build a new digital environment where users can store their personal online data in Pod’s which can then be accessed by apps and third parties, of course only when a user allows this. A good example of a project with this ambition is the Solid Project which aims to radically change the way applications work today, resulting in true data ownership as well as improved privacy. The ultimate goal of this project is to allow users to have full control of their own data. Below a picture I made how this should work:

My Personal Online Data

The Social Dilemma is focussing on problems without attention for possible solutions, maybe the persons interviewed in the documentary who all worked for social media companies are to much attached to the way these companies are working now and are not able to think outside the box.