Potential Solutions for problems posed by Netflix’s docudrama: The Social Dilemma

Posted by Andrea Silva

Potential Solutions for problems posed by
Netflix’s docudrama: The Social Dilemma

In 2019, CNN reported, “US teens use screens more than seven hours a day on average — and that’s not including school work.” 

What’s the impact of that behavior — good and bad? How can businesses help make the impact positive?

Thirty-eight (38) people from ten organizations gathered to discuss this phenomenon and The Social Dilemma, the Netflix docudrama. Participants steered the conversation by asking provocative questions and posing potential solutions — ways leading companies and executives can respond in a positive way.

The following is a recap of the discussion. Thank you to all of the facilitators of this event:

  • Michelle Pacynski, VP of Digital Innovation at Ulta Beauty
  • Tim McCue, VP of Digital at Jockey
  • Brian Sathianathan, CDO/Co-Founder of Iterate and a member of Apple’s first iPhone team
  • Nicola Mathews, a former executive with Karen Millen, Ted Baker and now a founder of Freshwater London
  • Kristin Smith, SVP of Digital at Hanna Andersson
  • Arte Merritt, founder of two analytics companies and an MIT graduate
  • Moderators:  Joanne Wichern and Jon Nordmark of Iterate.ai


Why is this Social Dilemma happening now?

Facebook and YouTube launched in 2004, 2005 — then the iPhone came to us in 2007.

The iPhone combined with the App Store — copied by Android phones and Google Play — became a launchpad for tens-of thousands of digital businesses, each competing for attention. The best apps were addictive — ones like Instagram, kik, Whisper, Tik Tok and Snapchat. 

At the same time, User Experience (UX) teams at Facebook invented atomic features such as the Like button, which became an addictive dopamine release tool for teens and adults, as stated by the Harvard Business Review. 

Iterate’s look at what comes next

As we head into the 2020s, Artificial Intelligence (AI) will have lasting impacts. Month by month, it advances, exponentially, as stated in “Is Current Progress in Artificial Intelligence Exponential?.  In fact, the article explains, “self-improving machine learning algorithms can recursively (repeatedly) self-improve” … and … “the pace of AI progress could go from exponential to super-exponential as the AIs develop ever better versions of themselves at an ever faster pace (see chapter 4 of Superintelligence: Paths, Dangers, Strategies, by Nick Bostrom.”  Highly profitable social platforms are hiring top talent and investing in those AI/ML algorithms to further enhance atomic actions and services. They’ll become increasingly smartly robotic, more magically engaging and, perhaps, even more addictive. 

This may lead to social apps and screens consuming even more of our daily lives. Engagement creates a rock solid foundation for selling advertising. 

As these engaging digital platforms sell advertising — lots of it — to mesmerized users, these platforms have grown into the most highly valued companies on the planet. Facebook is valued 3X more than Walmart and 25X more valuable than Ford. 

15 of the wealthiest companies in the world

Because many social platforms are public companies, Wall Street pressures the platforms to encourage more engagement and sell more advertising. Stock prices drive corporate behavior. Thus, revenue growth — more than social good — is the #1 objective. That’s a thesis of Netflix’s The Social Dilemma.

By 2014, Google sold more advertising than the peak of the entire US newspaper industry. 

And since 2014, advertising on Facebook has exploded to more than $70 billion per year as graphed by Statista.

Facebook annual revenue

As Social and Digital Platforms chase revenue, social costs emerge. While there is a lot of good, many questionable, negative outcomes are tied to this pursuit. Outcomes like more addictions, more polarized thinking, less diversity, reduced attention spans, a reduced ability to focus, more social comparisons, more cyberbullying, even more suicide. 

Addictions, Polarization and Diversity.
Social apps like Tik Tok are gathering places for interactive crowds. The crowds are often composed of like-minded people — where algorithms bring people together daily. The algorithms learn on the fly, serving up content that is most likely to elicit responses from individuals, encouraging like-minded people give each other dopamine hits by liking and commenting on personal content and pictures. It’s become a pleasure trap that puts our brains in overdrive, as Columbia University research describes in Pursuit of pleasure, brain learns to hit the repeat button. Because algorithms funnel like-minded people together, social media may cause polarization of thought, create echo chambers, and harm diversity.

Attention Spans and Reduced Focus.
Our world is becoming one where everything is connected and always on. Smartphones and connected watches ping us constantly — tethering us to social media with notifications. The hardware and software — T-Mobile + Facebook — work together.  These automated phone notifications may be ruining our “alone-time” and leisurely contemplation. They also may be reducing our attention spans and our ability to focus. 

Comparing me and you.

Each notification becomes part of a measurement system. Social is continuously messing with us, ranking our popularity, keeping us needing more and more. 

How many Likes did you get?   

How many Followers do you have?  

What’s your Wattage on Peloton?  

This means we’re constantly compared. To everyone, everywhere. 

“Let’s say you’re browsing a fitness account or searching a certain hashtag and you encounter an image of a person posting their fitness progress,” according to A Scholar Breaks Down the Real Reasons We Compare on Social Media. “When looking at the picture, you can’t tell their height, weight, or athletic ability, so you find yourself comparing based on things like their attractiveness, their muscle tone, or their perceived success in achieving their fitness goal. This is ‘social comparison.’”

“By the time we reach adolescence,
we become more interested in romantic relationships and
comparison tends to center on appearance.”

~ A Scholar Breaks Down the Real Reasons We Compare on Social Media

This, according to The Social Dilemma, is why teenage suicide rates are up by 150%. Cyberbullying is causing extreme mental health issues, with devastating results.


Overriding Questions:

Are you using Facebook, or is Facebook using you?

Are you using Google, or is it using you?

Are you using Tik Tok, or is it using you?

Sheer Scale. The sheer magnitude, profound reach, and the vast scale of these platforms — like Facebook and Google — is a dilemma as presented in the docudrama. Today you can reach anyone on the globe via these monstrous platforms.  And reaching anyone and everyone can happen at an unprecedented speed. ~ Michelle, Kristin, Nicola, Brian

Algorithms.  Add to the dilemma of sheer scale a second dilemma of advanced algorithms — often powered by advanced AI. ~ Michelle, Tim

Different Realities. The advanced algorithms are layered on top of the data collected by companies like Facebook and Google to power 1:1 personalization and recommendations. Meaning, these massive platforms are actually highly personalized.  Their intent is to communicate on a 1:1 basis with each user. As the docudrama mentioned, any advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic. In other words, the more invisible the algorithm, the less it is noticed by the user and the more powerful it might be. ~ Tim, Michelle

Money Machines.  These unique realities powered by incredibly advanced AI, and infused with enticingly simple atomic action buttons, become engagement traps for consumers. As people spend more time checking their Facebook feeds, liking photos, and using Google for research, the massive digital platforms make more money — by getting you to view and click on highly targeted paid advertisements. ~ Tim, Brian

Playgrounds.  These advertising platforms double as today’s playgrounds. Tim said his teenage daughters are giving him first-hand visibility to the power for platforms that kids embrace — especially Tik Tok. He said that physical playgrounds — the ones with slides and tether balls — have been replaced by smartphones.  Smartphones and PCs are the new playgrounds. ~ Tim

Today’s playgrounds can be used by insidious people as grooming-zones that steer children and teenagers into dark places. Advertising can originate from dark companies. Deep fakes are emerging and voices can be replicated by startups like this bootstrapped Canadian startup named Lyrebird.ai. This is a problem that didn’t exist when kids watched cartoons on Saturday mornings.  Nefarious advertisers weren’t allowed on the networks — but today, on the always-on Web, it’s different.  ~ Tim

Dopamine.  The docudrama talks about the dopamine grip.  All-consuming platforms demands attention — tapping your shoulder — all day (and evening) long. Social platforms are like brains demanding attention from their users — and the mobile phones act as their tentacles that vibrate or ring on behalf of these social platform “brains”. When a friend tags you on Facebook, the FB platform sends you notifications but the actual notifications are manifested by the mobile device vibrating and requesting your attention. They platforms and smartphone companies work together to say — “look at me — NOW — hurry up.”  This post on Harvard’s blog — Dopamine, Smartphones & You: A battle for your time — explains how it works. These types of continuous interruptions and intrusions didn’t exist prior to 2008 and 2009, when smartphones emerged. ~ Brian

Awareness.  Our education systems are grossly behind the curve. This leaves both adults and kids exposed. “Seventy-four percent of Facebook users are unaware that Facebook records a list of their interests for ad-targeting purposes, according to a new study from the Pew Institute and this TheVerge article written in 2019.   ~ Nicola, Joanne

Logarithmic Change.  Human social skills are not keeping up with exponential changes happening to data and computing. Technology Innovation is following an exponential curve meanwhile human social interactions are still following a slow logarithmic maturity curve. The “social lag” is creating a real gap and a real problem. This article — Technology is Exponential but Humans are Linear — illustrates this problem. ~ Brian


The issues noted above are rendering these behavioral changes amongst citizens and consumers.

Trust Issues.  A big issue is that the parents are unaware of what their children are seeing.  This is causing parents like Tim to teach his kids to “not trust” what they see online.  In this world of deep fakes, photo filters and fake news, trust is likely to be an ongoing problem that organizations need to proactively address. ~ Tim, Kristin

Playgrounds. Again, children and teenagers are replacing real-world playgrounds with digital ones like Snapchat and Tik Tok. One way or another,  young people — and adults — need to learn to deal with this digital information deluge. “In the last two years alone, an asstonishing 90% of the world’s data has been created,” according to How Much Data is Created Every Day in 2020?.


The group of participants talked about six ways companies and individuals can embrace this trend and, in some cases, make a positive impact on our world.

  • Transparency will be increasingly important if brands and marketers want to win the trust of consumers. ~ Kristin
  • To build trusting relationships with consumers (and build their brands), companies and schools may be able to participate in the education of citizens and consumers — their guests — as a way of protecting them and partnering with them. A University participant agreed with a suggestion that schools should make “understanding who and what to trust” a part of their formal curriculums. ~ Tim
  • Startups could create unique data ownership opportunities, according to Arte and Nicola. Some of these experiments are emerging in Open Source and Startup communities where consumers can take control of their Digital Identities (Digital Me’s) by leveraging new technologies like Blockchain. These features — data control features — could be included in digital wallets or in 2023-version loyalty programs. Consumers could choose the entities with which they want to share their digital identities and private data sets. ~ Jon

    Governments could get involved in this too. China has giant blockchain initiatives underway by partnering with companies like Baidu and Alibaba — and they are trying to globalize the solutions as a way to be involved with digital identity management.  (Blockchain topic will be discussed by the Iterate Community on (date)). ~ Arte, Nicola
  • Consumers can be educated to take control of their lives. To diminish the control that social platforms and smartphones have over us, we can individually disable notification mechanisms — thus removing the dopamine grip (which the Social Dilemma describes as scientifically and intentionally leveraged by the large digital platforms). If we just take control of phones and and change the preferences in our social Apps, we basically cut off the “tentacles”. Then, we can take back our attention span, become more focused and access social platforms as tools — when we need them and thoughtfully wnat to interact with them. This is the fastest change one can make and we can teach our kids to do it too. Making a proactive move like this does not need legislation or a revolution. ~ Brian  
  1. Governments could create data taxes that need to be paid by big platforms. ~ Nicola
  1. Companies can also learn from the platforms — as a way to create more engagement opportunities for their own brands. Brian discussed simple atomic actions that are proven to create more interactions with their customers. These platforms create simple actions that require low investments of time and energy from a consumer — for instance, look at how easy it is to click on a “Like” button (which is an “atomic action”). Product designers  can combine several low investment actions to help establish  long-lasting habits and behaviors related to their businesses.  ~ Brian

== End ==

Let us know if you’d like to participate in our IterateOn events. Iterate and our Members value open-mindedness and problem solving. We love to exchange ideas and create dialogue.  


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