vaishnavi Profile picture
Sep 19, 2020 18 tweets 4 min read
I finally had time to reflect on #TheSocialDilemma and as someone who has worked on tech policy issues throughout my career, had many, many thoughts. 🧵

(The following are entirely my personal views and don't in any way reflect those of my employers past or present.)
(1) it was frustrating to watch former product, growth, and engineering leads wring their hands over "new" revelations that in-house policy teams warned them about for years. To see people who ignored and underfunded these teams now be positioned as "critics" and "truth tellers".
(2) Elevating these voices at the expense of those who actually understand the space led to a number of oversimplifications about the real social dilemmas today. Those are conversations we need to be having and this large Netflix stage could have been perfect for that.
On (1): None of these issues are new to those of us who've dedicated our careers to tech policy. Addiction, political polarisation, and loneliness are just the tip of the iceberg. We think about them, consult with / hire experts, and develop policy / product recommendations.
(As a caveat: "Tech policy" as a term here is doing some heavy lifting and covers policy research, policy development, operations, human rights, and public policy teams both within and outside tech companies. If there's a better term you know of, please tell me!)
Unfortunately, many technical folks think tech policy is easy enough for their (admittedly brilliant) minds to grasp by simply applying first principles, without any educational or empirical background in social science research, media studies, history, or race / gender studies.
To me, the dead giveaway was that when asked "so what's the actual problem?", every single one of the former insiders stuttered. Which begs the question, how do you design an entire documentary about a "social dilemma", around people who cannot answer what the dilemma is?
This commonly-repeated trope that they had absolutely no idea that their product could have adverse effects made me loudly exclaim "bullshit!" at the screen. If you truly had no idea, that simply means that you weren't listening to or valuing the opinions of your policy teams.
(Another illustrative moment for me: it took 57 minutes into a 90 minute documentary for the first Black woman to be invited to share her thoughts, when I can point to multiple women of colour within and outside tech who have been sounding the alarm on these issues for years)
Why is this important? First, I'm salty that more of my peers in tech policy weren't consulted. That women and people of colour who are true experts were sidelined by former tech bros who "didn't realise" what they were doing then and don't know what they're talking about now.
But more importantly - and here comes (2) - this by design contaminates otherwise incredibly important messages. A show funded by and featuring people who are ignorant of the issues (with a soundtrack evocative of Lost and Stranger Things), is not trying to inform or educate you.
Instead, the show is a good example of the type of misleading article they recommend that you fact-check before posting. Its goal is to oversimplify, set off alarms, trigger your emotions, and then leave you hanging with no clear weighing of the difficult options available to us.
I'm fully willing to believe that the insiders who appeared on The Social Dilemma genuinely feel remorse for their lack of foresight. But I'm amazed that they confidently repeat their error of thinking they understand the issues, and that the producers uncritically elevate them.
A few examples: People absolutely made a stink when bicycles showed up, advertising has always been about "human futures", and in this idyllic past where we all agreed on what's true, "truth" was the view of people in power who happened to look a lot like the insiders featured.
There is one line in the whole show that references the positives of technology that has connected billions of people, glossing over the real social dilemma: How do we change our current models without hurting the countless communities that have benefited from the current one?
This is a dilemma in the true meaning of the word: a difficult choice between alternatives that are not unequivocally good or bad. There is a wealth of talented researchers, social scientists, and policy development experts working to solve this. These are the real discussions.
Luckily, there's been one great outcome from this show: I've had many conversations with thoughtful friends and colleagues over the last week that reinforce how thankful I am to work with such brilliant and passionate people within and outside of this industry.
Some excellent additional reading that goes more into all the problems with the substance of the show, and points to some additional research you should check out if you're interested in the topics raised:……

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More from @vaishnavi

Jul 27, 2021
I’m excited to share how we’ve been thinking about building safe, age-appropriate experiences for young people across Facebook and Instagram.…

This work has been months, nay, years in the making, so there’s quite a bit in here... 🧵
In March we started asking teens to choose their privacy setting when they join IG. Starting today, we’re defaulting all new teens under the age of 16 into private accounts (18 in some countries). In initial tests, 8/10 teens we defaulted into private accounts kept that setting.
(Private accounts have many benefits but there are good reasons to be public - teen creators, activists, and athletes looking to draw attention to valuable topics - so teens will continue to have that choice.)
Read 13 tweets

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