I’m glad this documentary exists, as it’s made a lot of people wake up to the fact that massive social media companies like Facebook are hardly being generous by giving free access to their platform. Alas, corny acting prevents it reaching its full potential.
First, the good bits: this film presents first-hand accounts of how social media companies are engineering their platforms to maximise user engagement, putting the health and safety of their billions of users on the back burner as they compete to sell advertising spots. We hear about techniques such as A/B testing – tiny tweaks to the user experience, like moving the location of a button, are rolled out to a random selection of users to see whether it increased or decreased engagement.
Little nuggets of inside information and analysis like that are welcome – another example is Facebook’s photo tagging feature. Ever had an email like, ‘Emily tagged you in a photo on Facebook’? Notice how they don’t show you the photo in the email – you have to go onto the platform to see it. And while you’re there, you might as well check your notifications, and your news feed, and the latest group posts… you get the idea.
Okay, now the not-so-good. Firstly, the show entertains a little too much conspiracy for my liking. In some painfully acted live action scenes, we see ‘the algorithm’ represented by three Facebook engineers in a lab, watching their target’s life and deciding when to ping their phone to drag them into the platform and view an ad that they just sold for 3 cents. The thing is, Facebook does run instant auctions for advertisers to bid on an impression on a user’s Facebook feed. What they don’t do is literally spy on your actual life and ping you at the exact time it most benefits them. They just don’t.
The rest of the acted scenes are also pretty bad. I understand what they were trying to do with the part showing the teenage boy getting increasingly radicalised by far-right propaganda, enough to attend a rally and get arrested, but it didn’t hit deep enough and it just felt so weak as to be worthless.
Thankfully the takeaway from the film is something I can agree with: social media wasn’t invented to be evil, but evil it has become. Delete Facebook, the worst offender by far. If you need to, create a plain shell account to stay in touch with those who can’t be persuaded off the platform.