The Social Dilemma Syllabus

Netflix’s recent document The Social Dilemma has sparked new and renewed interest in the role of social media in our lives, how we interact with and within these digital networks, and the behind-the-screen manipulations that frame—and often obscure—our relation to the world and each other via social media.

In October 2020, the Communication and Media Studies Program at Washington College hosted a Netflix watch party for The Social Dilemma.

While the film serves as a solid primer to the vicissitudes of the widespread adoption of social media in contemporary life, the film lacks much of the context and nuance necessary for an in-depth articulation of the complexities of social media’s integration in our lives. This syllabus works to close some of those gaps, providing accessible information in five key areas: 

  1. Technological Determinism 
  2. The Digital Utopia 
  3. Racism and Gender Bias in Tech 
  4. Labor and the Attention Economy 
  5. Privacy and Surveillance 

What to Know About The Social Dilemma Syllabus

We recommend that you watch the film before engaging with this syllabus. Once you are ready to dive in, here are some helpful things to know: 

  • This is not a comprehensive rejoinder to the film, but it is a great place to start filling in some gaps and learning more. 
  • The materials included on the syllabus are appropriate for all engagement levels – whether you know a lot, a little, or nothing about these issues, these materials will be beneficial for you.  
  • Syllabus materials are all available for the price of an internet connection. There is a list recommended readings and viewings at the end of the syllabus that may have associated costs. Wherever possible, we’ve linked to free or cost-effective resources.  
  • We expect to update the syllabus regularly. If you have suggestions for additions, email them to Dr. Alicia Kozma

THE SOCIAL DILEMMA SYLLABUS

TECHNOLOGICAL DETERMINISM

Technological determinism is the idea that our social, cultural, and political life is entirely determined by the technology we use. A foundation of The Social Dilemma is that social media necessarily and singularly drives changes in our everyday lives, decisions, and behaviors. This idea is technologically deterministic. Contemporary communication and media scholars often resist these claims, and instead look for more complex correlations in place of this causal argument.  Learn more:

THE DIGITAL UTOPIA

The digital utopia, sometimes also called techno-utopia, is the idea that technology and its associated tools can help foster a new and better world for everyone. The digital utopia assumes first that technology is neutral, second that technology applied for good will always generate a good result, and third that these positive results are shared by all. While there is no denying that technology has improved some aspects of life, those improvements are neither universal nor solely positive. Two examples of this are the digital divide—the divide between those who has access to the internet and the technology and knowledge to use it and those who don’t — and the disproportionately negative impact technologization and automation has had on the poor in the United States.  Learn more:

The Digital Divide 

Technology’s Impact on Poverty and the Poor 

RACISM AND GENDER BIAS IN TECH

The Social Dilemma features interviews with industry insiders – former programmers, developers, and executives who worked for companies like Facebook, Google, Instagram, Twitter, Pinterest and many others. These interviewees provide insight into these companies while at the same time, they reflect the lack of diversity in the tech field. This lack of diversity extends into the content itself and into the algorithms that shape user engagement with technology. Learn more:

LABOR AND THE ATTENTION ECONOMY

This film reiterates an increasingly common axiom: if you’re not paying for the product, you are the product. User attention, user engagement, and data produced from those are fundamental to the profits of social media and search companies. But also fundamental to this process is the invisible labor of many – you included. Learn more:

Who Watches the Internet? 

User Labor and Control 

PRIVACY AND SURVEILLANCE

Digital technologies – social media, digital search, mobile apps, and so on – typically require users to agree to lengthy terms of service and often default to settings that give permissions to track your activity in a variety of ways. These issues are economic, and at the same time, issues of privacy speak to more fundamental questions about what it means to control information about oneself, what the impacts of surveillance are on an individual’s psychology and behaviors, and what repercussions may come from collecting and aggregating large amounts of user data.  Learn more:

Facebook and Privacy 

Surveillance  

The Social Dilemma Syllabus was created by Dr. Alicia Kozma, Chair and Assistant Professor of Communications and Media Studies at Washington College, and Dr. Meghan Grosse, Assistant Professor of Communication and Media Studies at Washington College.