Downward drive of the upwards swipe

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“The Social Dilemma”… details the deficits on mental health, attention span and social interaction.

“Netflix has dropped a challenging and widely praised doco that dives into the world of social media and the effects it has on unsuspecting consumers,” writes streaming columnist NICK OVERALL.

THE other day I experienced a peculiar moment. Watching a film on my phone that I’d lost interest in, my mind began to wander. Without much thought I tried to give my phone an upwards swipe, which resulted in nothing happening. 

Nick Overall.

Moments later I realised what I’d attempted to do.

That “upwards swipe” is a characteristic of the infamous video-sharing app TikTok. 

Users swipe up continuously through short, often humorous videos. The requirements are that these can only be a minute long in total, but often fall under the 10-second mark.

Uninterested in what you’re seeing? Swipe up and the next video is preloaded ready for you to watch. That one not grabbing your attention? Swipe up again. 

Amazingly, TikTok will track how long you spend watching each individual video (let alone who knows how much else, but we won’t mention China), and then before you know it, hey, presto, they’ve devised a feed of videos they know you’ll spend as much time as possible watching.

I had my suspicions that the app might be having some sort of negative effect on my attention span, but my almost unconscious action of “upwards swipe next video, please” confirmed it. 

Why am I talking about this? Well, last week Netflix dropped a challenging and widely praised doco that dives into the world of social media and the effects it has on unsuspecting consumers.

It’s called “The Social Dilemma” and it’s stirred up quite the buzz. It features former executives, ethicists and all sorts of social-media employees who have sounded the alarm on the escalating dangers and damage of social media.

The series, originally from a podcast that can be streamed online, details the deficits on mental health, attention span and social interaction exacerbated by the million and one networking platforms we now have such immediate access to.

Like TikTok, these social-media companies track time spent on any particular subject, then preload the next post, photo, or video to keep your eyes glued for as long as possible. And you can bet that Netflix or any other streaming platform has algorithms at work doing the same thing.

It becomes particularly dangerous when we consider the political implications generated by feeds that want to keep viewers hooked.

Interested in one thought, movement or ideology and social-media platforms will know about it and be more than happy to send you down a rabbit hole.

And then we wonder why people in the Twitterverse end up in these rampant and vicious echo chambers.

What the documentary cleverly points out though is the way social-media users have to take responsibility for their own online interactions. If we actively diversify our sources of information, Facebook or Twitter or whatever we might use will think: “Hmm, if I want to keep this person interested, we’re going to have to show them a diverse range of information otherwise we’ll lose them.” 

And of course, to lose users’ interest means losing that potential to make the copious amount of ad revenue.

“The Social Dilemma”, though not always communicating its messages effectively, makes for essential viewing in an age where those without some type of social-media app available to them are in a very small minority.

Its point is clear – we have the ability to transform our feeds back into tools we use rather than making ourselves tools of the companies trying to use us.

More of Nick Overall on Twitter @nick_overall

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