In the past 15 years social media platforms have become a hugely influential force in our lives.
People have been alternatively wowed by the connected world social media creates and scared by just how much data it collects and the impact it has on our lives.
Now a new Netflix documentary/drama, The Social Dilemma, has gone inside the workings of the platforms that have such a huge impact on our daily lives and it has left many shocked.
The film argues tech and social media platforms have been deliberately designed to addict us and profit off our attention and digs into the algorithms used to drive the content we see.
It quotes statistician Edward Tufte who says “there are only two industries that refer to their customers as ‘users’: illegal drugs and software” and warns that “if you’re not paying for the product, then you’re the product”.
It argues its our attention that is being sold to advertisers, and this is the main product not the services social media platforms build and deliver.
The film also includes a fictitious case study of a typical American family, where the two younger children are addicted to their phones and social media while their older sister tries to bring them back to the real world.
The teenage boy of the family becomes addicted to “extreme centrist” content fed to him by an algorithm and when he tries to attend a political rally, his sister is arrested trying to save him from violent protesters.
At first glance The Social Dilemma is enough to put you off social media and your smartphone for good, and that was the immediate reaction of many.
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While some have been shocked by the documentary’s revelations, others have viewed it as a vindication of their long issued warnings.
Former Google design ethicist and now president of the Center for Humane Technology Tristan Harris is a key figure throughout the film, along with Harvard professor and “surveillance capitalism” expert Shoshana Zuboff and virtual reality pioneer Jaron Lanier among others.
Social media accounts for the Mozilla non-profit that makes the Firefox web browser and is focused on ensuring “the internet remains a public resource that is open and accessible to all” said the documentary brought up “serious and valid concerns about the impact of social media” to a broad audience, but said there were “glaring omissions”.
Deputy director of digital rights advocacy group Fight For The Future, Evan Greer, said it overplayed the addictiveness of social media and underplayed its real-world value.
“The problem with ignoring this is that it leads us toward ‘solutions’ to Big Tech that do more harm than good,” Ms Greer added.
“Social media has given more people a voice in our democracy than ever before in history.
“None of this is to say that there aren’t huge problems with Big Tech social media companies like Facebook and Google … In fact, their business models are fundamentally incompatible with basic human rights and democracy, but no one wants to address the business model.”
She said banning things like microtargeted advertising and opaque algorithms that amplify posts based on engagement (Facebook’s so-called “rage machine”) would be more effective than focusing on individual choice over whether you use social media, or pressuring the companies to change.
US chess champion and comparative literature scholar Jennifer Shahade said the film was “overly negative, ageist and outrageously lacking in nuance, diversity or solutions”.
New media theorist and professor at Canada’s Simon Fraser University, Wendy Hui Kyong Chun, said despite its flaws the movie does raise the question of just what to do next.
The film has been received positively by reviewers with an 86 per cent approval rating on review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes and is now available to stream on Netflix.