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The Netflix Documentary That's Freaking Everyone Out

"It's easy today to lose sight of the fact that these tools actually have created some wonderful things in the world," Pinterest's former president Tim Kendall states in an interview during the opening moments of The Social Dilemma. "They've reunited lost family members, they've found organ donors... I think we were naive about the flip side of that coin."

Documentaries are always there for us, waiting for the right opportunity to remind us that the world is a nightmarish landscape coated in a thick, greasy layer of chaos, deception, and death. Need a graphic reminder that baby animals get eaten every day? Look no further than your favorite streaming service. And in The Social Dilemma, there's no more delicious looking infant creature than independent thought, and no predator hungrier than social media.

The Social Dilemma comes from award-winning director Jeff Orlowski, the filmmaker behind the climate change docs Chasing Ice and Chasing Coral. Here, he focuses in on the Machiavellian world of social media, capturing frank comments from former employees of corporate giants like Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and Pinterest. One of the most jarring details about the film is the way that nearly everyone interviewed, right off the bat, expresses concerns over moral and ethical struggles that they faced while in the industry. While everyone has griped about social networking at some point, it's positively harrowing to see websites and apps that have become cultural forces of nature from the point of view of the people instrumental in their creation.

The Social Dilemma is messing with people's heads

The Social Dilemma is split up into segments, with the interviews punctuated by dramatizations featuring actors like Skyler Gisondo of Santa Clarita Diet and Kara Hayward of Us. The meat of the film, however, is dedicated to discussions with experts in the field, frequently accompanied by animations presented with an infographic aesthetic.

An 89-minute run time doesn't give the filmmakers a huge amount of time to cover all of the troubling aspects of the tech industry — at one point, interviewees are asked "what's the problem" with Silicon Valley, and they're all taken aback by the complexity of the question. But that doesn't stop The Social Dilemma from trying. Topics are varied, ranging from the stuff you hear about on the evening news three times a week (like tech addiction and information theft), to more Orwellian fare. Social media apps are compared to slot machines, designed to give users the same dopamine response and keep them coming back. Mental health issues are addressed, with a particularly chilling segment on social media's perceived effect on teen suicide rates and the marked uptick in non-fatal self harm hospitalizations over the last decade. Footage from the Terminator franchise is juxtaposed over the assertion that Skynet-like tech "already runs today's world right now." The use of social media in politics, unavoidably, also has a starring role in the documentary.

The Social Dilemma debuted at Sundance in January of 2020, and is currently available to stream on Netflix.