Public Relations Blog

What is your social dilemma? Symptoms and insights for an internet culture


Do you want to watch a scary movie this Halloween season?  Watch The Social Dilemma on Netflix.

I’m out there telling people to watch it and my teenage daughter is telling me to stop it because I’ve been on her case since I saw it.  For ninety minutes you get to hear “interviews with tech experts, including many former employees of Silicon Valley giants, and PSA-style dramatic scenarios.”(CNBC)  From giant media rooms with rows and rows of servers crunching algorithms and storing information, to the spread of misinformation, to the addiction people have to their phones, the film does not hold back.   The experts claim that the experiment has gone wrong and even the people who started it do not know how to stop it.  Or, they just don’t want to.

Here is why I’m bugging my teenager about her phone.  In the film, a teenage boy is clearly stuck to his phone.  Behind the scenes are three “AI” guys who use different tactics to get the teen’s attention.  Some of the things they do stretch the truth, like sending alerts from people that the kid interacts with unbeknownst to the sender.  I disabled Facebook alerts on my personal account because it seemed like they were coming in every hour, and I just do not have the time to keep track of other people’s lives 24/7.

What are the symptoms of a social dilemma?

  1. “Phoneicitis”: Where you are and who you are with can’t match the exciting world of your phone.  Have you ever gone out to eat at a nice restaurant (before CoVid perhaps) and seen a family all on their phones?  Or a couple, both on their phones?  That’s romantic.
  2. “Toomanycoincidencists”: Your life is starting to seem like a series of topics where everything you see and hear is related to a comment you made or a purchase.  I’ve had the experience of talking about something in my house and then seen things pop up on my phone related to what I was talking about.  I even get spam calls phone from locations I’ve mentioned in passing. Did you know flat-screen TVs can “hear you”?  Alexa isn’t the only one listening.
  3. Time warps: You sit down to read a message on Facebook and an hour later you realize you don’t know where you are.
  4. Jump scares: You notice your phone lights up and you jump or start because you haven’t had a moment’s peace and you are exhausted.

How did our social dilemma evolve?

As creepy as this sounds, many of us take it as a necessary evil of being a part of modern society.  Televisions were modern once.  Back then it was exciting for advertisers.  They could finally reach a national audience all at once.  So the internet and digital marketing are just the next steps, right?

The answer is one of those “yes” and “no” propositions.  The difference is that we have evolved along with the technology.  So a programmer who understands how to employ algorithms can do so and then a company can match its marketing strategies to the way the algorithms work.  Computers can review the data, cycle it, add to it, recycle it, learn something new, shift to fit the new information, try again, and so on.  It is amazing to think that people have created mechanical brains that can reason.  I believe the only things machines do not have are our emotions, but hey, that’s coming too right?  (Read AI: What it is and how it really works)

 Simple solutions

Is there a social dilemma, like a war between good and evil?  Absolutely.  I mean, the end result of the investigations over the past four years has confirmed that a foreign government (Russia?) interfered with our election process.   But we also need to take responsibility for our own actions by:

  1. Educating ourselves and listening to a wide range of voices to come to our own conclusions about what is true or false
  2. Not clicking on every link.  You wouldn’t want to invite a virus into your computer’s hard drive, so consider what you are seeing and clicking online so a virus doesn’t get you.
  3. Setting a timer when you start scrolling so you can keep tabs on how conscious you are of what you are doing
  4. Check the settings on all of your accounts and adjust them for privacy and not clicking “order now” without looking at what boxes are checked automatically.  Maybe you do not want to be on that newsletter email list.

Many of these were suggested as parental controls for my kids’ devices.  Now I’m thinking we all need some boundaries.