I watched The Social Dilemma on Netflix yesterday. What these tech workers said struck a major chord with me, and I think that it is something worthy of discussion.
The Netflix Documentary
If you have not yet seen this, below is a clip from YouTube.
In The Social Dilemma, a variety of Tech workers discuss their activities and thoughts on the products they worked to build. These aren’t lower-level Tech workers like myself. Rather, these are founders, owners, and even inventors.
In this documentary, the overwhelming suggestion and concern revolves around the manipulation of individuals for the sake of profits.
Many like to say that if the website is free, then YOU are the product. This is an over-simplification of it all. Others say that your information is getting sold, but they really have no motivation to sell off the data most of the time. Still, others will suggest that your TIME is the product.
Regardless of how it is described, YOU do end up being the product. Their goal is to get you to see certain things, to have certain feelings, and to stay on the site for as long as possible.
It can fairly be classified as an addiction.
My recommendation of this piece revolves around the warning that these people have for the general public; that using these products is addictive. It’s dangerous. It’s lending an individual “reality” to each person who uses the websites. The AI predicts what you like and do not like, and then fashions a reality around these predictions with the intention of getting you to stay.
Before long, you are in your own customized thought bubble, full of confirmation bias. Now you’re trapped in a very comfortable place where everyone agrees with you, and you can even find self-righteous indignation.
Through it all, you will wonder why “the others” are so stupid. “The Others” are people who are not in your tribe. This can be a tribe about politics, religion, music, cooking, or pretty much anything.
While in your own thought bubble, you may encounter other friends who do not fit in with your bubble. Discussions can devolve quickly into fights. Online anger and fighting is no accident, and it generates a phenomenon known as Engagement. It doesn’t matter why you stay on, so long as you’re on. And if the inspiration is negative or destructive, then so be it.
Out of 5 stars, I would rate The Social Dilemma at 4.5 stars. I found myself getting distracted at times, when they would flip between the experts talking and the scenes with actors that illustrated how people, families, and communities are impacted.
Disclaimer: In the interest of full disclosure, I did work in Tech for a number of years, most notably at MySpace (2005-2008) and LinkedIn (2015-2016). I also worked at Lynda.com from 2011-2016, which was owned by two of the documentary’s Executive Producers, Lynda Weinmann and her husband, Bruce Heavin.
There is a blatant difference when comparing social networking of the past to social networking in the post Web 2.0 era that began in 2004.
In the “before times,” I recall using sites like ICQ, mIRC, Yahoo Chat, AOL/AIM, CompuSERVE, and even GeoCities. The internet was referenced as “the wild, wild west,” where anything could happen. Nothing seemed regulated or controlled, and the end-user.
Now, everything is tracked, measured, sometimes encouraged, aggregated, and then used against you in an effort to monopolize your time.
That’s not to say that there weren’t problems before Web 2.0. I recall a period in 1993-1994 where I found myself hopelessly addicted to AOL. Back then, people would be given a set of hours per month to use, and then they would be charged by the hour for any overages. My internet habit was costing me between $400-$700 per month at times.
The one thing I remember slowing me down was the need to actually dial up a phone number, and wait for the modem to shake hands with the server.
Imagine what finances would look like for the world if everyone was still paying per hour for their overages. Then again, it didn’t take long for companies to figure out that it is in their best interest to keep you online for as long as possible.
WEB 2.0 AND MYSPACE
Web 2.0 came into being in 2004, which was when high-speed internet started becoming more ubiquitous. A bigger data pipeline meant that companies could send and receive more packets of data faster than usual. While some details of a website’s functionality will be optimized for the user experience, what made the data transfers bigger was the added data required for tracking.
The high-speed floodgates were opened, and the efforts began.
I started using MySpace in early 2004, when a friend showed it to me and described how his band would use the site to “promote” their shows. I put “promote” in quotes because of how they did it.
Each person in the three-piece band would log in and just add friends like crazy. It seemed like a great idea, until I went to their first heavily-promoted show at Molly Malone’s in Los Angeles.
There were three people there, counting me. On MySpace, it was always the same: “Wish that I could have gone to your show, but X.” For X, it was things like, “but I don’t live in California” or “I’m only 12 years old.” It was a lesson in how having no focus at all can result in failure. But all of this was new.
I made some friends on MySpace and was enjoying being on chat with them. However, the site would always go down. People got frustrated. We even threatened to move over to Friendster, and we did, but the experience was lacking, so we went back to MySpace to wait for Pac-Man to go away. Pac-Man always appeared on the screen when the site was down.
I got so frustrated with this, but then I had an idea. I would look for problems on the website, and then send a message to “Tom,” everyone’s first friend. Maybe that would help them get the site working.
I sent issues to Tom, and he would actually write back and tell me that things were fixed and ask me to test them out. I did this for the better part of a year. Then, in mid-2005, I went to the MySpace offices and got hired on-the-spot.
Next thing you know, I’m one of the ~40 people who are working on the website.
And I did find the problem that was cropping up every time the site would go down and we’d get Pac-Man. In the early dates of the site, there was only ONE server. That server had a bad network cable that they would be jiggling from time to time to keep the site alive.
But it wasn’t long after I got there that this little server became nothing more than a relic, as we were adding new servers to the farm every single day.
The MySpace story is one that could go on for a long time. In the end, the website was destroyed by greed, power grabs, tribal warfare, and a sheer contempt for the people who were using the website.
LYNDA AND LINKEDIN
I got downsized from MySpace in mid-2008, right as the website was about to become irrelevant. For a time, I would be proud to say that I worked at the biggest website in the world during “the years that mattered.”
Then I spent three years freelancing before getting hired on at Lynda.com in mid-2011. I spent five years with that company. But my time there would be cut short. The beginning of my end came in 2015, when they sold the website to LinkedIn for $1.5BLN.
After MySpace, I had vowed to never work in social networking again. I was feeling badly about having a hand in bastardizing the word “friend,” to the point that it is now almost meaningless. Thanks to an acquisition, I found myself once again working for a social networking website.
When I went to their coding Bootcamp, there was this interesting moment where they gave mention to Google’s slogan of “Don’t be evil,” before sharing their own slogan of, “Don’t be creepy.”
After this declaration, the instructor proceeded to show us just how creepy things get with LinkedIn. From tracking, to downloading your contacts regardless of permissions, to recommending your neighbors to you as a potential contact because of geolocation, the picture got grim.
Everyone in the class loved it.
MY PERSONAL USE
I was a heavy-duty power-user from the time that AOL first came out, up until mid-2014. Long story short, I got taken advantage of by a “friend” who said she had cancer. A lot of time and money passed over the months before I finally found the truth.
I’d be had.
So in July 2014 I deleted all of my social networking accounts. I was done. I even deleted this website for about two months, because I was so done with the internet.
I didn’t think that I was addicted to the websites. After all, I had never experienced addiction to alcohol or drugs, so I was at a loss.
For the first month, I had severe sweats, intrusive thoughts, and other issues. One of these issues is called FOMO, or Fear Of Missing Out.
But an interesting thing happened by the end of the second month. By that time, I started to wonder why I had ever posted anything online, at any time, ever.
And just like that, I was out of the loop. I stayed away from all social networking for almost five years.
Some might say that YouTube or WordPress are social networking. They do have their qualities that can increase screen time. But I do not really engage with other people too much on these sites. At the very least, interacting with others is secondary to what I do on those sites.
I first returned to Facebook in early April 2019. This was shortly followed by Instagram. I stayed away from Twitter and everything else, just to maintain focus.
A ROCKY START
When I got back on, I instantly felt a great deal of anxiety and dread. One person welcomed me back. Most had no idea that I was gone, which was somewhat surprising.
I’d find myself posting, second-guessing what I posted, and then deleting. I was very uncomfortable. I remembered that feeling of wondering why I had ever posted anything in the first place.
Interactions were difficult, and paranoia was hiding around every single corner.
I kept it up until just a few months ago, when I deleted everything again. This time it was just Facebook and Instagram.
MY ASSESSMENT OF SOCIAL NETWORKING
I think that social networking websites are highly dangerous, not just for me, and not because I am Autistic.
What is the danger?
It’s not that they’ll sell my information, or that they’re trying to sell me ads.
The danger comes when the website has a hold of you. They can inspire anger, frustration, or even nostalgia. Once it has a grip on you, it won’t let go.
This isn’t something that just happened in one bold move in one moment. Rather, this is something that slowly heats up over time.
One thing I noticed was that I was getting invited to join lots of groups. These were groups that promoted political ideologies. Some I agreed with, and some I did not.
What they had in common was that I avoided all of them, because the last thing I needed was either hearing someone who agreed with me 24/7, or someone who disagreed with me all the time.
I did try to join a few music-related groups. But inevitably, someone would get political and I’d boot myself out. Even in community groups, like the one where I can find out what’s happening in my small town, there are people who cannot help but get political.
It started to feel like some people were ignoring me and others were looking for a fight.
FURTHER ACTION REQUIRED
For me, deleting all social networking and not using it is simply not enough, and it never has been. My psyche and general emotional state was hijacked by a combination of social networking business model efforts, as well as my 9-10 month experience with the cancer scammer.
This is why I have started participating in de-programming sessions. Nothing will destroy your view of Humanity faster than social networking sites like Facebook. The scammer, the friends who plotted against me, and the hyper-angry people who fought non-stop had a profound impact on my self-image and how I interact [or don’t] with others.
Social networking sites are unhealthy for regular people, and even more dangerous for those of us who are Autistic. They’re just not good for anyone, except for those who enjoy the fat bottom-line.
IN THE END
There was a time when social networking was mostly fun. Although there was no corporate guidance in the background pulling the strings, I was still addicted to the internet itself.
Now it has been made worse, almost as if the addictive qualities have doubled.
I have backed myself off from the internet, to the point that I have my website, my YouTube page with videos, and this blog.
Today, my internet usage looks very different from any of the old days. I get up early and watch a few videos. Then I get on here and write something, some days. I pay bills, and carefully read some news articles.
With news, especially in video form, I avoid channels that hype, or people who yell at the viewers. The first time they attempt to invoke fear, I unsubscribe. If I get any sensation of being manipulated, at all, then I bail out. I can notice it now, too, thanks to my early de-programming efforts.
If it feels too good or agreeable, I question it.
If I feels too bad or ugly, I question it.
Being in touch with one’s emotions and being able to stop to identify them is important to survival.
Should you watch The Social Dilemma on Netflix, you may feel inspired to delete your social networking accounts as well. If you get that feeling, then I would give you some encouragement.
Firstly, I would encourage you to figure out why you are on Facebook or other social networking sites. Are you there to keep in touch with family? Community? Old friends?
Then ask yourself, “Is this REALLY what I’m doing with it?”
Ask yourself about your mood while using the sites. Are you angry, frustrated, or lashing out at people? Are you being aggressive?
If you try to justify the anger you feel, then stop and ask yourself if this anger is truly productive. No matter how angry you get, it won’t change things that have happened.
Did the things that you believe happened, actually happen?
Obviously, this takes lots of introspection, and I’d recommend this introspection to anyone who is on the fence about deleting their social networking profiles.
But if you possess the fortitude to plow forth and delete your social networking profiles, then I would recommend seeking therapy and talking with them about de-programming yourself to get away from the drive to use social networking sites.
Jaron Lanier has a prominent role in The Social Dilemma, so I’ll leave you with an interview that he gave two years ago. Thank you for reading!