“All profoundly original art looks ugly at first” – Clement Greenberg
Few documentaries have blazed their way to the top of Netflix’s charts faster than The Social Dilemma. Its narrative of braided fact and fiction both enlightens the viewer and captures the zeitgeist of Generation Z. Critiquing ‘social media’ as an institution, the documentary exposes insidious algorithms and CEOs who exploit our stunted attention spans for cold, hard profit.
This documentary is not the first to criticize new media technology broadly and vaguely. The 1920’s advent of commercial radio sparked intense debate. Jack Woodford, renowned cultural critic, described the audio shows as “brainless diversions that erode listeners’ ability to think, inquire, and judge.” Radio was criticized for turning artistic journalism plastic and commercial, voiding it of the raw storytelling that only writing could provide. Critics operated through the “old media,” subscribing to their own tradition’s method of capturing an audience with art.
Social media is different from radio in a few ways; it primarily distinguishes itself by relying on algorithms that collect vast quantities of data to target content. This form of entertainment might be more similar to television, which was also vilified by a conservative public. The magnetic glow of black boxes became notorious for corrupting minds, particularly those of the youth, and terms like “addiction” were thrown around with little science to back them. People lamented the loss of radio, singing, “They took the credit for your second symphony / Rewritten by machine and new technology / And now I understand the problems you can see” along with The Buggles in 1980.
Along with the arrival of TV came a rejection of new media as art, just as it had with radio’s burst onto the commercial scene. Television advertisements, for example, were not seen as successful art works that used rhetoric and technique to nab customers. Instead, they were admonished for exploiting consumer psychology. Social media algorithms for product recommendations are similarly received, seen as insidious worms that control our minds. But does the presence of the algorithm delegitimize the advertisement as an artform? If the algorithm suggests a meme that aligns with a user’s taste, does this strip the amusing pic of its genuine artistry?
New technologies have a proclivity to disrupt the entertainment industry, and cultural critics have historically been skeptical of the new in favor of the more “authentic” or “natural.” But music labels use algorithms to fashion hit singles just as Instagram selects the perfect meme to attract likes. The public doesn’t care where music comes from as long as they enjoy it. Similarly, big data algorithms don’t weigh on the public’s opinion of whether this music is good, bad, dangerous, or groundbreaking. As a matter of fact, TV ads have established their artistic worth as well, with millions tuning into the Super Bowl simply to enjoy its 30-second miniclips, now seen as a highlight of the show.
To what extent might an instinctual distrust of the new play a role in our aversion to social media? We cannot forget that the critique offered in documentaries like The Social Dilemma is an outgrowth of our TV-bred generation. In fact, the documentary itself is part of a vast tradition that harps on the dangers of media, while simultaneously utilizing its own antique techniques to entertain. It combines ominous music and quirky characters with scenes of professionals griping about social media to sell the viewer its message. The irony of The Social Dilemma lies in its ability to blow up the charts, feeding millions of impressionable viewers a narrative about technology that commands their attention. No less than the media it admonishes, the documentary is a result of rigorous research into the psychology of its consumers—what works in film and what doesn’t. The only difference is that this research wasn’t conducted by a computer algorithm.