Rewatching the Social Dilemma on Netflix as a Digital Media Professional

The Emmy winning docudrama The Social Dilemma left us baffled last year. The movie reveals how social media manipulates its users and in subtle yet terrifying ways controls their lives. 

The docudrama became something of a sensation last year with 38M viewers in its first 4 weeks on Netflix. First time I watched the movie I was shaken by the kind of impact social media can have in destabilizing democracies, radicalizing people, and affecting interpersonal relationships. However, rewatching the movie as a digital media professional, I came to some interesting realizations.

  1. When on social media you’re the client, the seller, and the product all at once

The movie harps on how Social media is the only service that sells its consumers. Social media sells views to advertisers. In other words, it is the time a consumer spends on social media that makes the social media giants rich. The more time you spend on social media, the bigger the giants get. This is why platforms such as Instagram, Facebook and Twitter are designed to be addictive. 

For digital media professionals, this means we are at a unique position where we are at once the clients, the consumers and the product. When we use organic marketing techniques, we act as consumers spending time on social media, interacting with other users and creating content. However, this also makes us the product, a part of the consumer base these sites offer up to advertisers. When we go for paid marketing, we become the clients.

How does this understanding help us as marketers? It’s pretty simple really, platforms like Instagram rate its consumers based on how much time they spend on the app. In order to get a higher organic reach, we need to give the platforms what they want, more of our time, more content, and more interaction that keep other users hooked to the app.

  1. You can befriend the Algorithm

The movie also talks about how social media is run by an algorithm that decides what you do with your time. The algorithm however, has different goals than you as an individual and may drag you into a rabbit hole of information or misinformation that ends up trapping you.

However, what the movie doesn’t say is that it is very easy to befriend this algorithm. You can align what you see on your social media feed to your personal and business goals and find a community of people who help you achieve it. On Instagram you will find bookstagrams, athletes, crafting communities and social impact groups. Surround yourself with a community of people who have the same goals as you and the momentum of the community will help you achieve your goals faster. 

  1. In order to be successful with your marketing you need to break into the bubble

The movie also talks about how personalized feeds create social media bubbles. The movie discusses this as a problem. The algorithm only shows an individual material it thinks the person would be interested in. The algorithm may choose to show you what a celebrity with 50k subscribers has posted over a small business started by a friend you feel deeply connected to. This often makes it hard for new creators and businesses to find the audience and the support they need. 

However, on the other hand, this very feature makes it very easy for you to find their target audience once you learn how to break into their bubble. Optimizing your social media page, targeted marketing and interest group marketing are great ways to connect with the right target audience. 

  1. There’s a lot to learn about communication from the film

As digital media professionals our primary job is to tell stories to connect with people. If you have ever found yourself stumped by the task of communicating what might seem rather abstract and technical to an audience and making them understand why it is relevant to them, look at what The Social Dilemma did. The docudrama uses everyday scenes and shows how something we have taken to be ordinary could have devastatingly drastic results on our lives. The familiarity of the situation strikes a chord with the audience while the drastic outcomes shock us into action. The data used to support these claims make the movie reliable.

The documentary uses dramatization to make unfamiliar concepts such as AI and ML easier for the audience to understand. Most social media users are aware that the algorithm influences what they see on social media. However, using people to represent the AI and showing how the algorithm works to manipulate our choices, is what makes it surreal and helps the message stick.

  1. Your impact can be revolutionary or catastrophic

Ultimately as digital media professionals, we do need to reflect on the harm we may be doing on social media. According to the film 64% of the people who joined extremist groups on Facebook did so because the algorithms steered them there. Misinformation spreads faster than information on social media. Are we doing our best to fact check everything we put out? Are we ensuring our campaigns do not have negative effects on vulnerable groups? 

Social media campaigns have potential for revolutionary change. Some of the most impactful social media campaigns in recent times have taken on social ill and spoken up about pertinent issues in our community. It is up to us as digital media marketers to make the most of that potential. Small decisions to stay away from body shaming, colourism, racism, homophobia and transphobia in our marketing campaigns can go a long way. 

Erik Qualman, the author of  said “We don’t have a choice on whether we do social media, the question is how well we do it”. In 2022, when we speak about how well we do social media, we need to look into our social impact and our responsibility towards those who support our brands.

Have you watched the Social Dilemma? What was your key takeaway? Let us know in the comments below.

“We don’t have a choice on whether we do social media, the question is how well we do it”- Erik Qualman

Leave a Comment