Digital Marketers Discuss “The Social Dilemma”

July 27, 2021

On a hot Houston summer afternoon, a group of Blue Sky Marketing employees gathered for lunch and conversation to discuss the Netflix production “The Social Dilemma”. Download our document of questions to kick-start the topic with your teams.

“The way to think about it is it’s 2.7 billion ‘Truman Shows.’ Each person has their own reality, with their own facts.”
- Roger McNamee, early Facebook investor

What is “The Social Dilemma”?

Netflix summarizes this 2020 production: This documentary-drama hybrid explores the dangerous human impact of social networking, with tech experts sounding the alarm on their own creations.

The film interviews former heads of Silicon Valley (think Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, Google), and many more insiders for a candid and brutally honest look at the impact social media is having on society. The film’s central argument is that social media, and the ad engines that power it, are reprogramming the way humans think and act in the real world.

Sundance summarizes it, “Powerful, hidden artificial intelligence tasked with hijacking our attention is tearing apart social norms, jeopardizing truth and democracy, and putting civilization on a programmed path toward self-destruction.”

What does this film mean to us who work in marketing? As digital marketing professionals, are we part of the problem? Are social ads and the algorithms that control ad targeting an evil, uncontrollable monster? Or can they be used to deliver valuable content to an audience that needs solutions for their pain points?

Here are the summary highlights of our round table discussion, as well as some solutions we’d like to implement in a desire to launch transparent, ethical, and valuable digital marketing campaigns.

"How do you wake up from the Matrix when you don't know you're in the Matrix?"
- Tristan Harris - Google, Former Design Ethicist

What are Actionable Takeaways for Marketers for “The Social Dilemma”?

It is the responsibility of digital marketers to uphold ethical standards since the technology itself doesn’t necessarily have “morality” built in. Algorithms are programmed to recognize patterns, and the role of the digital marketer is to use that technology to serve relevant, helpful content to the people who would benefit from it the most.

  1. Use more transparent, authentic language in our ad copy that concisely (and honestly) showcases the product to person viewing the ad.
  2. Always strive to provide value to your prospects – content should be helpful during the buyer’s decision-making journey.
  3. Marketers should feel empowered to say when they don’t feel data use is ethical when it comes to targeting and use of data.

We believe that with a strong offline identity, individuals can be much more resistant to algorithm-driven attempts to behavioral control. For marketers, this means aligning our messaging and targeting to our customers’ core beliefs, addressing their pain points, and being an ally as they make decisions online.

Let's Talk Digital Strategy


The Social Dilemma: Questions to Discuss with a Team

Do you think you could stay off your phone for 24 hours? What notification would compel you to get back on your phone?

In the film, the fictional American family bringing the social dilemma to life was forced to lock their phones away for a week. They struggled, and the avatars representing Facebook/Instagram’s notification system tried testing multiple notifications to bring their users back.

CAROLYN: The banking app telling me, “Your account is overdrawn.” All of my bills are paperless, and I rely on email to stay notified. My phone is an admin center. Even though I have a perfectly good computer to check email and do bills, the phone is right there and so easy.

KATE: A text regarding my kid. I can stay off my phone if everyone that could need to contact me urgently is within the room with me.

SOMER: A text would also make me get back on my phone.

CARRIE: It’s easier to stay off my phone when I travel. I already have an excuse to be unreachable – so I end up just using my phone as a camera.

What can you do to help prevent an addiction to social media?

Social media and other apps implement gamification techniques to trigger reward centers in your brain. The designs for this are discussed at length in the film – app developers compete to capture and hold your attention. Everything from swiping to press a “Like” button is optimized to keep you scrolling within the app.

MEGAN: In the film, they said that the only two industries that call their customers “users” are drugs and social media. This feels very telling.

KATE: I have social media icons grouped in a screen that I have to deliberately swipe to get to.

CARRIE: I think social media detoxes are important as it gives us a few days to live in the moment and remind ourselves life doesn’t happen behind a screen.

If you could only keep one social media app, which app would it be and why?

Our 50/50 split included Facebook and Instagram. We understand if we had asked the same question to a group of high schooler or college students, that the mix would have skewed Instagram and Tik Tok.

TIFFANY: I use Facebook to keep in touch with people, friends, and family. There are a lot of people that I don't see or talk to very often. Without Facebook I couldn't reach out to those I don't have a phone number or an email address for!

CAROLYN: I’ve had my Facebook since it first launched when I was in college. I’ve trained it well, and I routinely unfollow or block pages I find myself spending too much time on. But it’s how I stay on top new releases for shows and games, how I watch cat videos, and the ads I get served are great. I feel like I’ve trained my Facebook to be valuable.

CARRIE: I use social media (IG particularly) to find new products, scope out new restaurants, or plan itineraries for upcoming trips. It’s nice to see “real” photos from visitors or locals.

SOMER: Instagram is the only platform I post on now. I also use it almost exclusively over Facebook for posting pictures and stories. It’s more of my closer friends there and less of my high school teachers, high school classmates, and friend’s parents.

After watching the film, do you plan to change any of your privacy settings on social media? Which ones, and why or why not?

MEGAN: I went ahead and opted in on iOS 14. I don’t want ads served to me with no context. I still want ads to be relevant to me.

TIFFANY: I opted out of everything. Some apps haven’t noticed, but some are aggressive when they’re trying to get me to opt back in.

SOMER: After watching the film, I went into my settings to change all of my privacy settings which luckily, I already had things pretty well set. 

CARRIE: My privacy settings are pretty high right now, and I have no issue blocking or removing toxic accounts and/or friends.

Have you ever seen an ad for something you had only talked or thought about? How did it make you feel?

MEGAN: I was at the gym, talking about how much I liked these gym pants with pockets, and then I was served an ad for gym pants WITH POCKETS. I bought them, and they’re great, but it was definitely an eerie experience.

SOMER: I actually do not have this happen to me. When it happens to my friends after a conversation it feels very creepy. I have never allowed the “Hey Siri” listening capability, so I think that may be why.

How we can we be mindful of the ethics behind digital marketing?

MEGAN: It comes down to value and being useful to the audience. We want our ads to speak to the right audience to address a pain point, not just sell them something.

CAROLYN: I have been actively trying to avoid using adjectives in my ad copy lately. Linguistics is important. Since the film, I’ve been trying to make sure I balance objective statements with the right amount of aspirational fluff.

CARRIE: I think that any one of us at Blue Sky has the ethics to put our foot down and say “this isn’t right” when it comes to social media ads and digital marketing, and that’s supported within our company culture.

SOMER: I agree with the team that BSM has a very ethical company culture. We are also consumers or “users” of social media, and we often put ourselves in the scenario and ask how we would feel if we were on the receiving end of the ads we put out.

What is one part of the film that really resonates with you?

CARRIE: Seeing the young teen’s inability to shut it [social media] off or do without it. I have seen this with young members of our family, and it’s sad to see their inability to connect with in-person family members due to their phones and fear of missing a moment with their friends.

CAROLYN: I try my best to do as the film recommended and follow pages that I don’t necessarily agree with so I don’t live in a bubble. You need to have a full view of the world and everyone around it and not siphon yourself off with only people you agree with.

MEGAN: Individuals have personal agency even in the face of overwhelmingly sophisticated technology designed to modify our behavior. I encourage the people in my life to take steps to decide on their own identity - what are their core values, what do they most want out of life and to contribute in their life, what kind of memories do they want to create. If you have a strong identity that you embrace and nurture, you'll be much more resistant to algorithm-driven behavioral control.

Your Thoughts on “The Social Dilemma”?

Is your business interested in digital advertising and paid social? What are your thoughts on the film? Let’s connect and discuss on LinkedIn.

Explore our Blog


Client Testimonials

"We brought in Michelle's team and it was night and day"

Search Engine Ads That Deliver Results, At Blue Sky Marketing's Google Ads team combines the right amount of analytical skills to interpret the data · technical expertise to help with tracking, and curiosity to test and optimize to ensure the highest performance. We are Google Premier Partners and we have expertise across various industries.
Marketing Clients
Newmark Homes The Signorelli Company Johnson Development Corp. Viridian: Master Planned Community Danner's Security