The Social Dilemma

selectric typewriterI am, by nature, a self-con­fessed Lud­dite. I write the ear­ly drafts of all of my books on yel­low lined pads, and only turn to the com­put­er when it’s time to input the fin­ished draft. I then print out the draft, and write my revi­sions and edi­to­r­i­al notes on the hard­copy. Writ­ing and/or edit­ing on the com­put­er is sim­ply not a thing in my world. If it weren’t for the ground­break­ing, time-sav­ing func­tion of dig­i­tal copy and paste, I doubt I’d have ever turned my IBM Selec­tric® in for a per­son­al com­put­er at all.

It should come as no sur­prise that it took anoth­er 10 years or more before I was dragged, kick­ing and scream­ing, into the world of elec­tron­ic mail. For years, I had an assis­tant oper­ate an email address on my behalf, and only took over those duties when she neared the due-date for her first child. I knew what she did­n’t: her new baby was going to require all of her atten­tion for quite some time.

Once I was on email, my pub­lish­ers began nudg­ing me to set up a web­site, which of course I resist­ed. I even­tu­al­ly caved, and my site went live the day Bronx Mas­quer­ade won the Coret­ta Scott King Award, at which point fans were start­ing to search for my online pres­ence. Fine, I thought. But a web­site was absolute­ly, pos­i­tive­ly as far down the dig­i­tal rab­bit hole as I intend­ed to go.

Next, I was drawn onto Face­book which those in the biz tout­ed as a pri­ma­ry tool for pro­mot­ing books. With mar­ket­ing depart­ments push­ing authors in this direc­tion, this seemed worth a try. Face­book, though, was as far as I was going to go into the world of tech and social media. And I stuck to that, too—right up until I took a sec­ond look at Twit­ter and the impact it seemed to be hav­ing on author expo­sure and book sales. Now, here I am, locked in hook, line, and Twit­ter handle.

Turns out, there were some excel­lent rea­sons for me to avoid the dig­i­tal rab­bit hole, if only I’d known.

I came to under­stand, fair­ly ear­ly on, how addic­tive social media can be, but that was­n’t espe­cial­ly wor­ry­ing. It meant that I need­ed to be fair­ly dis­ci­plined about my use of it, and I’m a fair­ly dis­ci­plined indi­vid­ual, so that was okay. Then, grad­u­al­ly, I became aware of some of the neg­a­tive aspects on the vul­ner­a­ble who were being bul­lied online by bad actors tak­ing advan­tage of their anonymi­ty to say and do things, they would nev­er say or do to a per­son­’s face. That was trou­bling. Then it became appar­ent that young peo­ple were either los­ing, or deriv­ing their sense of worth from social media likes or respons­es to their self­ies, with or with­out the use of new-fan­gled fil­ters. Not good. Social medi­a’s down­ward slide start­ed pick­ing up speed.

More recent­ly, the tox­ic envi­ron­ment of Face­book in par­tic­u­lar, and social media in gen­er­al, start­ed get­ting to every­one. Some folks sim­ply decid­ed to get out of Dodge. I hung in, though, but I became increas­ing­ly frus­trat­ed when attempts to engage in polite dis­cus­sions with peo­ple of a dif­fer­ent polit­i­cal per­sua­sion became impos­si­ble. Con­ver­sa­tion was being replaced by ver­bal combat.

Alarm bells did­n’t sound off in my head ful­ly until I watched a lit­tle doc­u­men­tary called The Social Dilem­ma. And by lit­tle, I mean a bombshell.

Among my take­aways: social media has, by design, worked to elim­i­nate our shared real­i­ty. It has, by design, cre­at­ed addic­tion to itself that’s so strong, even its design­ers have a dif­fi­cult time dis­en­gag­ing. This, of course, serves adver­tis­ers who want our atten­tion, and need us to be on social media for as long as pos­si­ble, each and every day. They are the cus­tomers, and we are the prod­ucts the tech com­pa­nies are sell­ing to them.

Social media has aid­ed the grow­ing divi­sion in our nation. The use of this media has ratch­eted up a young per­son­’s sense of lone­li­ness, iso­la­tion, and ulti­mate­ly, a sense of worth­less­ness that has wild­ly increased the per­cent­age of teens and pre-teens suf­fer­ing from depres­sion and com­mit­ting sui­cide (up by as much as 187%). And, bad as that all is, it’s only part of the story.

Some of you read­ing this will, no doubt, say “well, duh!” But I won­der how many under­stand to what extent social media plays into the hav­oc we’re cur­rent­ly expe­ri­enc­ing in our lives and the lives of our chil­dren, and how much this media is con­tribut­ing to the break­down of our democracy.

young boy with smartphone

Like most, I have been painful­ly aware of the neg­a­tive impact this media has been hav­ing on rela­tion­ships with friends and fam­i­ly, and have been griev­ing it. How­ev­er, I didn’t ful­ly under­stand the insid­i­ous ways social media has under­mined us all, not by work­ing poor­ly, but by work­ing as it was designed to. The doc­u­men­tary, The Social Dilem­ma, was a giant wake up call. The media’s very design­ers broke it all down, in great detail.

Once I picked my jaw up off the floor after view­ing this film, I reached out to a cir­cle of friends, urged them to watch it, then arranged a vir­tu­al group dis­cus­sion, short­ly there­after. By the end of our talk, we all felt it vital that we broad­en the con­ver­sa­tion, urge oth­ers to watch this film, espe­cial­ly with their fam­i­lies, and to have nec­es­sary con­ver­sa­tions of their own. This blog is one of my attempts to move that forward.

Please watch this film. Watch it with friends. Watch it with your col­leagues, your stu­dents. Most of all, watch it with your chil­dren. Fol­low the view­ing with a con­ver­sa­tion about what sur­prised you, and what did­n’t, what fright­ened you or gave you pause, and what steps you think you might want to take in response to it.

This is not a call to close your accounts or aban­don the media, alto­geth­er, although some may. As an author, I’m part of an indus­try that’s locked into this media, so I see myself alter­ing how I engage with it— and how often—but don’t see myself leav­ing it entire­ly, at this point. I do find it telling, though, that the very cre­ators of this media for­bid their own chil­dren to engage with it. Think about that.

girl mesmerized by screenSome design­ers sug­gest demand­ing leg­is­la­tion that sets con­trols on the media where there cur­rent­ly are none. Oth­ers pro­pose that an age-lim­it be applied to the use of social media, in much the same way as we put age-lim­its on drink­ing, and on dri­ving. After view­ing this film, you might find this worth con­sid­er­ing. Whether you do or not, this is a clar­i­on call to take a sober account of social media. We all under­stand what’s good about it, but we need to con­front what isn’t. We need to ful­ly com­pre­hend its harm­ful, and dan­ger­ous, impact on our lives, and espe­cial­ly on the lives of our most vulnerable.

I rarely rec­om­mend films. It’s even rar­er that I rec­om­mend a doc­u­men­tary. I have nev­er urged every­one to watch a par­tic­u­lar film. I am doing so now.

Please make the time to watch The Social Dilem­ma on Net­flix. We all need to under­stand the mech­a­nisms of this crea­ture we’ve invit­ed into our homes, into our lives, and into our brain­stems. What we do with this infor­ma­tion is up to each of us.

This one thing I know: knowl­edge is power.


Ten Argu­ments for Delet­ing Your Social Media Accounts by Jaron Lanier

The Dan­gers of Social Media by Paul Otway

Tris­tan Har­ris—US Sen­ate June 25, 2019

How a Hand­ful of Tech Com­pa­nies con­trol Bil­lions of Minds Every­day, TED Talk by Tris­tan Harris

How Your Brain is Get­ting HackedTED Talk by Tris­tan Harris

Your Phone is Try­ing to Con­trol Your Life, by Tris­tan Har­ris, YouTube

Can Truth Sur­vive Big Tech? Tris­tan Har­ris, YouTube

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