Netflix's The Social Dilemma is essential (and terrifying) viewing

(Image credit: Exposure Labs/Netflix)

The Social Dilemma – the latest feature-length documentary to hit Netflix and breed even more distrust between people and their smartphones – is not pulling its punches. 

Through numerous interviews with some of the industry's biggest defectors – including alumni from Instagram, Twitter, and YouTube, and the co-creator of Facebook's Like button – The Social Dilemma offers a shocking insight into how social media apps compete for your attention, as well as revealing the tricks they pull to keep you boomeranging back for more.

The documentary intersperses the talking heads with a dramatized account of a fictional family, each member struggling with their own social media demons. The mother worries about the mental health of her children. The daughter becomes obsessed with her looks and the unkind comments on her Insta. The son falls down a stalking-the-ex rabbit hole, becoming withdrawn and depressed. 

It's a great way of conceptualizing the issues the Big Tech whistleblowers are talking about – you'll find the fictionalized discussions between different facets of a sentient AI played by Vincent Kartheiser particularly gripping – and will likely force even the most ardent among us to reconsider the relationship we have with our smart devices and favorite apps.

(Image credit: Netflix)

That said, the documentary delivers little that's truly shocking. We all know the newly-coined adage that if you haven't paid for a product, you are the product. Few, if any of us carefully read those pages and pages of terms and conditions before we hit "agree" and install a new app, but it's the ways the creators continually fight for your attention that's more unsettling. 

The tagging. The mentions. The memories. According to the talking heads, these features weren't created as a kindness to its audience – they're merely a means of keeping you addicted and keeping you swiping, forever force-fed a hardy diet of status updates and retweets and the fake news your Uncle Mike insists on sharing.

It's possible the plight of the fictional family might feel a little too contrived – the young girl smashing a lockbox to retrieve her phone is just one of several slightly surreal moments, and the zombified son who does nothing but dutifully swipe is a tad on the nose. But between the dramatization and the interviews, there's no denying that The Social Dilemma is a timely, and worrying, exploration of social media algorithms and the people behind them.

More than anything, though, it's the whistleblowers' insistence that they too are not immune that might bother you most. Even though they know the tricks used to keep us primed and connected, it's clear this in no way protects us from surveillance capitalism and the siren call of social media. Worst still, The Social Dilemma's conclusion doesn't quite deliver the guidance we so desperately need to extricate ourselves from this mess. 

But if you've ever been concerned about the screen-time of you or your loved ones, check this out… and maybe leave your phone in the other room.

The Social Dilemma is streaming now on Netflix.