The Social Dilemma is a documentary-drama hybrid that explores many of the issues surrounding social media, like Facebook, YouTube, Google, Twitter, Pinterest, and more.
Former Executives from these groups are leading a discussion on the negative side of social media and the consequences that social media have brought us. In this episode we’re going to break the movie down and share with you issues that marketers should pay attention to.
At the core I think is an ethics issue. But I hope not to persuade you one way or another, rather to show you things and hopefully help you make your own decision.
I. The nature of social media from the perspective of the social media business and user.
Every social media companies business model is really about three things: Engagement, Growth, and Ad Revenue
Engagement is defined by the amount of attention that users spend on the platform both in time spent on social media and what they are spending their time on.
Growth is defined by the amount of new users that sign up to a platform and are then engaged in the platform.
Ad Revenue is defined by the amount of money that social media companies earn by showing the user ads that users would be interested in.
Really though, social media companies are all fighting for and clamoring for the users attention. You should know the well known quote that says: “If you’re not paying for the product, you are the product”.
Social Media Companies are not in the business of looking after the user’s best interest, but rather, to increase their time (your time) on the platform so that more money can be made from companies who are placing ads in the news feed.
What’s the User’s experience? Well, the Social Dilemma highlights that many executives at Facebook, Twitter, and Google were all students in classes at university where they learned persuasive technology. How technology is used to persuade and to change people’s behavior.
We notice elements of this technology every day:
- Notifications on your phone (the red dot with a number in it, a ding, a lighting up of the phone, or a banner or some other attention grabbing thing)
- You’ve been tagged in a photo (not only does the social media company email you, it doesn’t show you the photo in the email, it directs you back to the platform)
- Infinite Scroll – (Aszra Rankin developed this) that gives you a constant feed of content and things to engage with. There is no limit.
- Ellipsis bubbles – keep you waiting for the text chat or comment on a post from someone. what will it say? you have to wait and see.
- Memories – what happened years ago?
- Other friends engagement (Hannah liked a photo, what was the photo? Randy and Sarah are in a relationship now, did you know?)
- Direct Messages
- Scientific A/B Testing of elements (further learn about users and optimize the experience so that you will stay on the platform longer)
Tristan Harris (featured in the film) said that the goal was to implant an unconscious habit or desire for you to engage. Think about it, Social media companies know they’ve been successful when you have your phone or tablet out in plain view and you have the subconscious urge to pick it up and scroll.
Even while I was preparing for this podcast episode by watching the documentary and taking notes, Netflix constantly kept dimming the screen and overlaying a title graphic. I had to keep clicking into the window to remove it, thereby capturing and keeping my attention on the movie.
Chamath Palihapitiya who was VP of Growth at Facebook says: we want to figure out how to manipulate you psychologically and afterward, give you that dopamine hit.
II. The Psychological Effects of The Social Media Business Model for Society
The documentary opens this section of the program with this quote: “there are only two industries that call their customers, ‘users’: illegal drugs and software companies” – Edward Tufte
There are many many studies and reports out that can address more fully the effects of social media on society at large for sure. I’m not going to be able to put any finer point on it, other than reporting to you what I have learned from this documentary.
Jonathan Haidt, a psychologist at NYU has come to the forefront of the research said that there is a gigantic increase in depression and anxiety for teenagers that began in 2011-2013. Haidt (and by way of The Social Dilemma) states that since 2009 there has been a 62% increase in girls aged 15-19 and a 189% increase in girls 10-14 years old for hospital admissions for non-fatal self harm in the US.
For suicide rates in the same segment of girls there’s been a 70% increase in deaths for 15-19 and 151% for girls in the 10-14 year old bracket in the same time frame. Haidt says that the Gen Z are the first generation that got on social media in middle school, and that generation is more anxious, fragile, and depressed.
But, let’s call it what social media is. It’s created for ourselves an addiction. You see it everywhere. People are always on their phones checking their accounts, Tik-Tok, Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, the list goes on.
If that’s not enough, folks like Ann Lembke at Standford Medicine, has essentially declared that social media is a drug.
Finally, the very subjects they interview even state that they themselves fight their own addictions. Tim Kendall, former Pinterest Executive, said that he himself has found himself to be addicted to Pinterest. Azra Raskin admitted that he had found himself to be addicted to Twitter and Reddit and even had to code things to block him from scrolling through Reddit. Tristan Harris said he’s addicted to his email.
Many of the same executives that work for or have worked for social media companies don’t even allow their own children on phones or social media.
But for the rest of us, Chamath Palihapitiya says it pretty well.
III. What are Marketers to do in light of what The Social Dilemma illustrate and describe for us?
Now that we have a clearer view on the business model, the user experience, and then the social impact of social media. We now see the various actors at play in this space. We see that social media companies are driven by engagement, growth, and ad revenue. We know that social media companies that are publicly traded are charged with making shareholders and investors money. We know what the users experience and how social media companies create addicting experiences for billions of people. We know that society is suffering and is radically changed. We also know that marketing agencies, companies, freelance social media consultants, and other people that want to drive business results sustain social media companies by ads they pay.
There’s a lot going on for sure.
If people associated with the documentary, The Social Dilemma, are right then it’s clear that there needs to be a radical shift from what is the status quo to a new approach. Several people in the documentary point to a new business model, others point to governmental regulation, still others, like Jaron Lanier, propose that we should all just delete our social media accounts and have nothing to do with social media any longer.
What are marketers, who are part of the social media ecosystem, to do and consider? We know that Marketers hold themselves to a high ethical standard. At least they should.
At the very least, marketers should be aware of the position they hold and how they contribute to the overall problem within social media. Clearly, when an ad agency or marketing department decide to add to their marketing mix ads on Facebook targeting their ideal customer, look a like audience, or segment, the money they pay them help fuel the system as it exists today. On one extreme, social media marketers are the enablers and financiers of a new, insidious drug that is unregulated, ubiquitous, and affects everyone. Maybe this is the new expression of ad agencies marketing cigarettes. From where I sit there are several similarities. Today, marketers of soap and shampoo who have the goal in mind of raising revenue and return on ad spend may not realize, until now, through their ad spend they are somehow contributing to suicide rates of teenage and young girls.
If this is where you sit, that marketers are in fact enablers and financiers by supporting Facebook, Twitter, and Tik-Tok through buying ads, then there is a lot of work for you to do. You should summarily rethink your marketing strategy to remove social media ads, allocate your money elsewhere, and really just adjust your marketing strategy as a whole. You’d have to double down on SEO to your website (which, you still play the social media game if you concentrate on Google), You’d have to double down your work on email marketing, programmatic, and other avenues.
But as I sit here I’m dismayed because it seems that every channel possible for marketing in the mix, is affected somehow by an algorithm. In The Social Dilemma the algorithm is portrayed as a soulless seeker of the social media goal, and that is to grab attention and keep it. It does not matter what the subject or affect is, only that the users attention is captured. Maybe in a future episode I will (or bring someone else on) to discuss a marketing mix that’s free from algorithm application and what that would look like.
But, you might not have the same conclusion. What’s the other extreme? Well, certainly there is a lot of good that is to be had in using social media. At the beginning of the documentary subjects start by describing the massive benefits of social media. From being reunited with lost family members, locating suitable organ donors, and the ability for relatives to stay connected with family members who live across the globe, there is a lot of good to see and have social media. There has always been a fine line between the good and the bad of social media and as with anything in the world, moderation is the key to nearly everything.
By funding Facebook and Twitter and others, you keep this kind of system alive and help more people. As marketers, we’re supposed to be able to use the foundations of Place, Promotion, Price, and Product to connect with your ideal customer. Using Social media ads is the perfect way to connect your product to the right customer and to grow your business and brand. You probably think about the algorithm altruistically. That it’s meant for a win-win-win. That is, you help customers win by getting a good product in their hands, you win by growing your business and doing your part in the world, and you help the world win by continuing the human quest for self development, enjoyment, and more.
What ever the answer is, it probably is in the middle. Social media might not be the evil that some purport it to be. True, we have always seen society become engrossed in one thing or another. Memes on social media juxtapose photos of people riding the NY subway train all with their eyes glued to a little light box held in the palms of their hands with a black and white photo of people in the same subway system all with newspapers in their hands reading the news of the day before they head into work or home. There are clear differences between a newspaper and a phone, but for the sake of society, we realize that we each generation has to deal with societal phenomena as best we can. Some argue that we’re no match for the algorithm and computers with increasing processing power however.
IV. Concluding Thoughts
I hope this episode has helped my fellow marketers gain a fresh perspective on the nature of social media and at least get them out of their rut of thinking about social media in the terms of ads, campaigns, ad sets, copy, creative, and the basic things of marketing on social. I hope that you have a better appreciation for the business model, the users’ experience, and the effects of social media on society as a whole.
I hope that I have asked the deeper question about the ethics of marketing and how marketers play a part. We, as marketers, are not free from this dilemma. In fact, we are most assuredly a key actor in the problem. Or, conversely we are part of the efforts that are working to improve society and the world every day.
I’m curious. Where do you, listener, stand on the issue? Have you watched The Social Dilemma? What do you think? What did you learn? Are you thinking about the ethical concerns that you face as a marketer? Where do you stand on the issue?
For me, I am considering rethinking my personal social media use. I know that I have the agency to control my personal social media consumption, and know that I still need to have accounts on social media for my work and exploration. For me I think I need to expand my boundaries between me and my devices, and my consumption of social media. I’m currently reading Jaron Lanier’s book and have a lot to consider. I’ve been tempted many times to downgrade my iPhone to a dumbphone of some sort as a way to curb my addiction among other changes.
I’d love to know what you think. Email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The Documentary The Social Dilemma:
Watch on Netflix (you will need a Netflix Account)
Tristan Harris – former Google Designer and founder of Center of Humane Technology
Jaron Lanier – futurist and author Ten Arguments to Delete Your Social Media Accounts Now
Jeff Seibert – former Twitter Executive
Bailey Richardson – one of Instagram’s first employees
Tim Kendall – former VP at Facebook, and former President of Pinterest
Roger McNamee – Facebook , Silicon valley investor.
Aza Raskin – inventor of the infinite scroll
Joe Toscano – former Google designer
Chamath Palihapitiya – Former VP of Growth at Facebook
Sean Parker – former President at Facebook
Cathy O’Neil – author of Weapons of Math Destruction