Can Europe Make It?

The discreet charm of social media and the choices we don’t have

The curious co-existence on Netflix of 'Emily in Paris’ and 'The Social Dilemma’ reveals the choices that are not available to us.

Julia Rone
17 November 2020, 11.59am
Screenshot: 'Emily in Paris'.
Netflix website.

Within the course of one month Netflix released the dystopian documentary “The Social Dilemma” and the romantic cliché-ridden TV soap, “Emily in Paris”, that have since trended together. These two productions offer two completely opposing visions of social media that coexist in an absolutely unproblematic way not only on Netflix but also within our perceptions and attitudes. On the one hand, we have the “Delete everything. They are watching us” – syndrome. On the other hand, “I just got 20,000 likes. I am revolutionising everything”- euphoria. It is the persistent tension between these two worldviews that is much more interesting than either of them taken separately.

'The Social Dilemma’ portrays a world in which the tech platforms knowingly manipulate the weaknesses of human psychology in order to gain our attention, make us spend as much time on the platforms as possible, and ultimately expose us to targeted ads. Platforms do this through all kinds of devious mechanisms such as notifications, dopamine rushes from getting likes, or providing us with the short-term excitement of scrolling down and seeing something new. The documentary skillfully shows how our human agency is taken away from us by algorithms that micro-manage us and turn us into products for sale.

The strategy of ‘The Social Dilemma’ as a cultural intervention has been one of “revelation” – the film told us “this is what they are doing to you”, hoping we will rebel, change our behavior or at least join the rallying cry for regulation. But there have been two main problems with this strategy. First, what ‘The Social Dilemma’ presents as revelation unmasking a horrible truth, has in fact been known for a while. Moreover, after every big revelation about how social media operates – from the Snowden revelations to the Cambridge Analytica scandals, the sad truth is that users, outraged initially, have then gone back to resuming normal habits after some moderate PR-oriented tweaks by tech platforms.

What is more, while the film is very strong when it comes to explaining digital impact on psychology, it is quite naïve when it comes to politics.

'The Social Dilemma’ largely ignores how digital media are embedded in broader structures of contemporary capitalism. It attempts to explain political polarisation in the US and the rearrangement of party systems in Europe solely as a result of the rise of digital media. Carelessly commenting on the success of the Spanish social democrat Pedro Sanchez as illustrative of the resulting rise in the “far right and far left”, the American film does not once refer to the 2008 economic crisis which began with the US subprime mortgage fall-out and had such a devastating effect on US and European economies and also on their politics. Also not mentioned were the bailouts of banks with taxpayers’ money, the steep rise in social inequalities, and the imposition of austerity within the EU, despite widespread protests.

Explaining profound political change solely according to the advent of digital platforms not only completely ignores entire disciplines of research such as political science or political economy. It also creates the impression that if only we could regulate tech platforms, all political problems would be solved and we could go back to some idealised harmonious political system that in fact never existed.

In this sense, even though the overall message of the documentary – the need to regulate tech giants – is of considerable importance, the film’s alarmism and supposed depth are unfortunately compromised. The fact that tech bros are repentant may play into the current fad for competition in ultimate victimhood – but it does not make them any less techno-deterministic.

The second problem with this “unmasking of big tech” strategy is the alarming way in which people including myself go back to using the same evil media giants despite all they know about them. After seeing “The Social Dilemmа”, so horrified was I by the way my behaviour was being manipulated by algorithms that I disabled all notifications on my phone. But I re-allowed them two weeks later because I was missing important work conversations on Twitter, and responded very late to a friend who had approached me there. One of my smartest students shared with me that she uninstalled Instagram only to install it several days later for research purposes. Could it be that the way that the state of shock caused by “The Social Dilemma” is so quickly replaced by acceptance is more interesting than the film itself?

Enter the ‘Emily in Paris’ tv series

Here, Netflix’ superficial soap series helps us understand something about social media that ‘The Social Dilemma’ for all its earnestness cannot possibly tell us. ‘Emily in Paris’ serialises the adventures of a young American marketing consultant, Emily, who joins an exclusive Parisian marketing company and revolutionises it through her American savviness and skilful use of social media. ‘Emily in Paris’ in fact is the name the heroine has given to her Instagram Profile that gains more than 20,000 followers as Emily shares her cliché-rich experiences of the city of lights with seductive French men lurking behind every corner. Not only is the narrative of the series built around the events Emily portrays on her account – it seems Emily herself lives for her Instagram, recording there every important moment. The threat of Emily losing her Instagram is a minor tragedy in the show’s first series and needless to say, she is allowed to keep it in the end.

Screenshot 2020-11-17 at 11.47.30.png
Screenshot: 'Emily in Paris' | Netflix website.

Why does any of this matter? It matters because it gives the exact opposite side of the story told in 'The Social Dilemma’. As a marketing consultant Emily is ecstatic that she can track everyone on digital media. What is more, she is very creative and much more successful than other influencers thanks to her relatively unprejudiced intelligence and inventiveness. Rather than being a dopamine-addicted physical body from which data is extracted to create a virtual “second-self”, she is the one who targets ads, who creatively breaks the rules of the exclusive high fashion business and brings it closer to the normal people, the so-called “ringardes”.

No doubt, the platform is hoovering in her data in the process as well but this is not a problem in a series that invites us instead to root for her as an agent of progress and change. Emily, the American in Paris, is one of “all the little people who ‘want in’ like we all do” and social media helps her break through both cultural and social barriers. Emily, like us, uses social media not only because of the devious ways in which these media hook us in, but also because they allow us to be visible and gain life-enhancing “likes” in a society built ultimately around products – products like us.

The very superficiality of ‘Emily in Paris’ oozes the discreet charm of social media that keep us enchanted even though we know how they operate, how they extract our data, how our very inventiveness is turned into their profit.

Slavoj Zizek was surely right in his early writings that Marx got ideology wrong. Ideology is not the same as false consciousness – we do something without knowing what is behind it. Ideology is perhaps operating at its strongest when we know exactly what we do, but we still do it. I have always been amazed and disappointed that among my friends the ones who are most attracted to money, titles, big villas and “who is the daughter of whom” are often the leftists, suffering from what Joseph Conrad dubbed “ressentiment”. In the same way, I am quite familiar with the mechanisms that 'The Social Dilemma’ so forcefully presented on screen: yet, my immediate response was the urge to tweet about it and duly count every ‘like’ my tweet secured (not many since unlike Emily, I am not an influencer…).

This tension between knowing that social media are bad for us and still using them will not be resolved by insisting on the need to regulate tech giants. Properly regulated, the onus would be on the companies and not on the users to avoid bad decisions. But what remains fully unexplored in either of those films – the superficially deep one and the deeply superficial one – is the possibility of alternatives, other forms of human communication in which human beings do not voluntarily become a product – regardless of whether this product is managed ethically or unethically by companies.

But what remains fully unexplored in either of those films – the superficially deep one and the deeply superficial one - is the possibility of alternatives.

Among the reasons why I use Twitter so much is not only my personal longing to be liked but also the fact that it has been encouraged by every university in which I have worked. Every self-respecting project needs to have a Facebook page as well. Education it seems, like almost any other sphere of our existence needs some form of marketing. But why have universities never gotten together and thought of another way to connect scientists interested in each other’s work. Why can’t we have publicly owned and publicly funded decentralized networks where we communicate without the cost of our communication being our datafication for commercial purposes? There have been many attempts to build alternatives to social media, Diaspora being a well-known failed attempt. Regulating the already existing private commercial giants is not and should not be the only game in town – the natural limit of our critical imagination.

The reason why The Social Dilemma and Emily in Paris coexist so peacefully on the menu of Netflix is that there is nothing truly revolutionary in either of them. The really important question is: “what is not on the Netflix menu?” Instead of choosing between average policy options in a world of completely privatized communication, why not think of something better instead? Something truly alternative. Now that really would be “très chic”.

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