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  • Ishbel Macleod

Will The Social Dilemma be the death knell for social media?

If you’ve seen Netflix’s documentary The Social Dilemma, you might be wondering what effect this may have on the social media industry.

Will it be the death knell for social media? Unlikely. But it’s a question we’ve been asked by a few clients now, so we thought we’d share our thoughts on the documentary for anyone else who is wondering about the future of the industry.

Here’s some of the most common concerns and questions we’ve heard from those who’ve watched it and our views in response.

I’m worried about the algorithm on social media

The algorithm. It’s the boogieman of the 21st century and of The Social Dilemma in particular (played in the documentary by Mad Men star Vincent Kartheiser).

Talking about needing new shoes and then get an ad for some? – must be the algorithm. In practice, it’s a bit less creepy – and it doesn’t just happen on social media. It happens around the internet, and in day-to-day life.

Facebook actually shared an interesting video about how they decide what is shown on the newsfeed and gives an easy-to-understand example of it being like a friend asking you to choose food for them at a restaurant. You look at the options available on the menu and decide from your knowledge of the person what they like, what they’ve had to eat recently, and what they’ve enjoyed from that restaurant before. The way algorithms prioritise what content to show you on your social channels is very similar.

Essentially, the algorithm uses what it knows about what you’ve engaged with in the past to showcase posts it thinks you might like. You liked five videos on ducks in cute outfits? The algorithm will suggest more duck videos. It’s no different to logging in to an account on a clothing website and seeing ‘because you bought x, you might like y’, or Amazon’s ‘recommended for you’.

Wondering why you get ads for a certain website’s products after you’ve visited the site? That’s because of something called a Pixel. The Pixel is a little bit of code that brands can put on their website, which tracks when people who are signed into social media (be it Facebook, Instagram or LinkedIn) visit their site. The brand can then show you a ‘retargeting’ ad – essentially an ad that reminds you of all the website offers you’ve already browsed on their site.

With the pixel, advertisers don’t see who you are or any information about you – it is fully anonymous. To find out more about what this offers brands, check out our beginner’s guide to the Facebook Pixel.

I don’t like being ‘the product’

The Social Dilemma makes the point that nothing comes for free. With social platforms being ‘free to use’ comes trade-offs – you use our service; we use your data (to sell to advertisers). Essentially, if you are not the paying customer, you’re the product. That is – of course – a very uncomfortable idea.

Facebook has flat-out refused this claim, stating ‘Facebook is funded by advertising so that it remains free for people’. This isn’t something new – anyone who watched Mark Zuckerberg being questioned by congress in 2018 (following Cambridge Analytica) will remember his “Senator, we run ads” comment when asked how the brand makes money.

Think of it like a Farmer’s Market. It’s free to attend, you can go with family and friends or alone, you can choose to wander around and only do free things - pick up samples and chat to vendors - or you can part with your cash for those artisan sausages you haven’t seen on sale anywhere else.

In both instances, the initial offering is free to you. It is the advertiser (or ‘stall owners’) who pay for their place and it is down to you whether or not you want to buy. In neither case are you the product.

The grey area here is the use of your data on social, but looking back to the analogy again, the vendors that show up to the Farmer’s Market only do that because they know they’ll have a captive audience of people attending who are interested in farm fresh products. It’s the same thing with Facebook, advertisers pay money to Facebook in exchange for sourcing an audience that is most likely to want their products or services. As a Facebook user we have an option to allow Facebook to use our data to show us ads that may actually interest us, or to prohibit this by some level (if you go to settings, then ‘ad preferences’ you can choose to turn off personalised ads based on what you do on other websites, for example) . We don’t have to go to the Farmer’s Market!

Will The Social Dilemma discourage people from using social media?

It’s highly unlikely that The Social Dilemma will mean the ultimate demise of all social media. It has thrust the manipulation of our human psychology and use of our data into the spotlight and people are becoming more aware of their social habits, reducing their usage and some are closing accounts as a result.

However, the positive benefits of social still remain. Social media has become a pivotal part of our society: it’s used by journalists to source news, by brands to get messages out there and by people to stay in contact with loved ones.

What we believe the documentary could do is to help speed up the inevitable changes in regulations for social media advertising. As seen from the Cambridge Analytica issues, more ethical regulation in social media would be welcome – as well as a way to easily spot and stop the distribution of ‘fake news’.

What will The Social Dilemma mean for me as an advertiser?

As long as you’ve been following GDPR, nothing will change for you as an advertiser. You can continue to make social media ads the same way, and consumers will continue to engage – if they are interested.

Businesses still need a social media presence to be visible, communicate with existing customers and start relationships with new ones. All the documentary means is a savvier audience: and that can only be a positive.

How can I reduce my social media usage?

For some, The Social Dilemma made them realise just how how much of their time is spent on social media. As people who work in social, we understand that – we look at social all day long for clients, then in the evening we look at our personal accounts. Here are some things we do to help reduce our usage:

· Turn off notifications for all social platforms

As you saw in The Social Dilemma, social platforms can use notifications to get you to click onto the app.

  • Either turn these off in-app on your mobile or go to settings>notifications and turn them off on that screen.

  • How to turn off LinkedIn notifications on desktop: Go to me>settings & privacy> communications. Click ‘on LinkedIn’ and choose to switch off notifications.

  • How to turn off Facebook notifications on desktop: Go to settings>notifications. From here you can choose what notifications you want. Scroll down to ‘browser’ to turn off push notifications.

· Set limits to your time on the channels

  • Most smart phones have settings available to enforce app and screen time limits to stop you using your social channels for longer than you want to.

  • Some channels, such as TikTok, Facebook and Instagram show you ‘screen time’ of how long you have been on social.

  • TikTok even has a system (settings & privacy>digital wellbeing>screen time management) where if you hit the limit you need to insert a passcode to keep using the app.

· Delete the app

  • If your social media use has become an addiction, delete the app, or consider taking a ‘social media holiday’ for a week or so.

If you haven’t watched the documentary yet, you can catch it on Netflix. If you have seen it we’d love to know what you thought and carry on the conversation!

We’ll be following this up with more content for both social media professionals and consumers:

  • A blog on how to make sure your social media is GDPR compliant

  • A blog on how to find out what companies are targeting you on Facebook


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