Jeff Orlowski interview: ‘The Social Dilemma’ documentary

Even though the current president doesn’t weaponize Twitter the same way that his predecessor did, Jeff Orlowski wants people to know that social media is still further polarizing the country. “Each and every one of us has a different Twitter or a different Facebook, that’s being personalized and customized to my experience just to keep me on the platform,” Orlowski tells Gold Derby in our Meet the Experts: Documentary and Nonfiction panel (watch the exclusive video interview above). Seeing how social media has further isolated us as a society and help to prop up things like COVID disinformation and conspiracies that resulted in the riot at the Capitol on January 6th has left Orlowski with a pretty stark take on things. “I fundamentally do believe that this technology is incompatible with a healthy and functioning democracy.”

Orlowski’s film, “The Social Dilemma,” which is currently streaming on Netflix, examines the way that social media companies rely on getting people addicted to consuming content through their platforms. The film further shows how this business model has had devastating effects on society as well as people’s mental health. The documentary scored seven Emmy nominations this year including one for Best Documentary or Nonfiction Special and two for Orlowski as the film’s writer and director.

SEE Watch our interviews with over 150 of this year’s Emmy nominees

One of the starkest choices that the film makes is showing a dramatization of how social media addiction negatively impacts an American family. The choice came a year into the film’s production after many interviews with people who had worked in the tech world. “The whole time we were really trying to understand how this technology actually works. Like, what is machine algorithms, what are they doing to society, to us as individuals?” Orlowski felt that anthropomorphizing the technology, and specifically the algorithm, was important to explaining its harm. “You could bring to life the algorithms, you could see how that was being applied to a family and hopefully put audiences in that same perspective.”

While the dramatic sections doesn’t use recognizable actors, there is one exception to that and that was the casting of Vincent Kartheiser, from “Mad Men,” as the physical manifestations of the algorithms. It’s quite an ironic role for Kartheiser to take. “It was just interesting because Vincent didn’t really use social media at all. He was like very against social media and he really spoke to the material.” Orlowski was looking for someone who could pull off three different roles and bring distinct personalities to each part of the algorithm. “We were bringing to life three different types of algorithms based on the broad strokes of what the companies optimize for. So very often they optimize for engagement, they optimize for growth and they optimize for ad revenue.”

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UPLOADED Aug 10, 2021 2:47 pm