The answer to The Social Dilemma is you

The Social Dilemma Netflix dir Jeff Orlowski with Sophia Hammons

If you use Netflix, you may have been nudged to watch The Social Dilemma, but if you use Twitter or consume any media that takes its lead from it, you may be discouraged from switching on this groundbreaking documentary and deprive yourself of the education of a lifetime. Here’s why you shouldn’t skip it.

I’ve written about technology for 25 years, and my heart fell this week as I witnessed the mixed reaction to The Social Dilemma from tech journalists who, unlike myself, are still deep in the industry. From Jason Howell to Will Oremus to Casey Newton, these tech bros have collectively critiqued, scratched their heads and LOL’d at the documentary and its interwoven dramatisation, which shows the effect of social media-fuelled bullying (the performance by young Sophia Hammons, pictured, is superb) and disinformation on a US family. Outside the drama, the rest of the documentary interviews thinkers, critics and former big-tech engineers who ooze techie’s regret.

What frustrates me most are the tech journalists who bemoan the lack of answers in The Social Dilemma – Oremus calls it “a wake-up call with no answer.” That spectacularly misses the point of this work, which admittedly is not pure documentary but rather a hybrid that, like the most impactful art, creates profound discomfort. The Social Dilemma is not a wake-up call, it’s a call to arms, more akin to Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring.

As I watched Jason Howell and Will Oremus snigger because The Social Dilemma offers tips on managing social media manipulation and addiction at the same time it rolls credits, I wanted to throw something. Howell and Oremus argue that these tips (such as turning off notifications), come across as an afterthought, and are laughably inadequate – and laugh they did.

What they forget, from decades of drinking the tech journalist’s Kool-Aid, is that most people don’t know these basics of digital self-defense. They seem to miss the point that the role of The Social Dilemma is to stoke us to find answers, not to hand them to us. This is a dilemma, guys, it’s not auto-complete.

Everyone loves a car crash

The Social Dilemma’s central thesis, superbly described by lead interviewee and ex-Googler Tristan Harris, is that social media isn’t just addictive, it feeds us a customised truth. Here’s how it manages that: Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and other moreish tech like YouTube are powered by content recommendation algorithms which are so highly optimised using artificial intelligence that they feed us increasingly outrageous content to keep us engaged.

As Harris says, an AI that observes our eyes going to a crash at the roadside will conclude that humans love car crashes. And because AI doesn’t inherently understand truth or humanity, it only recognises its own objectives, so feeds us “engaging” content without compunction, up to and including serving us a personalised version of reality.

And users who’ve been duped don’t know they’ve been duped. That means you.

This is the real problem that The Social Dilemma points to: social media is a Trojan horse that hasn’t just allowed Greek soldiers to pour out and overwhelm us, it’s changed our perception of reality so we barely noticed the topless towers of Ilium burning around us.

Check your own symptoms

As fellow interviewee and Surveillance Capitalism author Shoshana Zuboff points out, the technologies behind tools like Facebook are designed to operate outside our perception, so that even if we do think online manipulation exists, we believe it to be an alt-right or ultraleft problem and ignore our own symptoms.

The worst thing about criticism by Oremus and others who blast The Social Dilemma – Silicon Valley insider Casey Newton calls it “ridiculous” — is that they’re stopping people from watching it and making up their own minds. “You’ve saved me an hour and a half.” “I was going to watch this but won’t bother now.” These are typical of the tweets underneath both the considered and the hot-take critiques of The Social Dilemma.

And so the self-blinding continues, because a hot take becomes truth that becomes gospel, and disagreeing with gospel is heresy. Otherwise reasonable humans who might have intended to watch the documentary suddenly become viscerally opposed to it – unaware that they and their viscera are under the influence.

What we have is a kind of societal psychosis in which not only do we profoundly believe things which may not be true, we don’t believe that we are among those being duped, stoked and gamed for profit. Societal psychosis is bad, especially in an election year. You don’t need to be an American like me to be affected by the fallout if the US’s deep fault lines fracture into Civil War.

So, democracy lovers, take action. Because the only answer to the social dilemma is you.

Watch this documentary and make up your own mind. Implement basic digital self-defense (disable all notifications, enable two factor authentication, don’t bring your telephone into the bedroom: use an alarm clock, embrace encrypted and no-trace tools like Signal and Duck Duck Go). Check your outrage before you click, react to or spread any content on social media: ban yourself from hot takes or tweeting while fired-up. Pressure lawmakers for new legislation where needed and regulatory authorities for enforcement where laws exist. Outlaw the big-tech business model – prediction products fed by our data, which use manipulation to keep our attention with lies so they can sell us stuff.

And start listening to people who don’t agree with you, and to people you’d decided to ignore. Before democracy and civil society are just #memories.

Sheila M Averbuch is a children’s author and former technology journalist. Her debut middle grade thriller FRIEND ME (Scholastic Press) publishes 10 November 2020. 

Racism is a virus. How will you fight it?

Collecting – match attax. Original photo by Russell Davies on Flickr

With America on fire, and police crime against Black Americans now entering its umpteenth decade, it may seem like reading children’s fiction is as useful as a teardrop on an inferno. But last week, when novelist and poet Jason Reynolds — who’s National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature in the US — spoke as keynote at a conference for school librarians, it became clear to me that reading fiction by modern Black American authors is probably the perfect place to start in fighting racism. Especially for white families like mine. Racism, he says, is a virus: one that’s transmitted in childhood unknowingly and spread invisibly.

During the talk, which came just two days after the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis, Jason gestured to his own hair — dreds — and his tattoos, his black clothing and his tall stature, and said, “Look at me. In any other setting, y’all are afraid of me.” See the keynote here below:

And white fear doesn’t start when Black men are grown men. See this from US reporter Eugene Daniels: “Imagine being in elementary school & your teachers telling your mom how scared they were of you when you walked in class,” he wrote. “As a child.”

Books deliver empathy

Fear. Suspicion. Dislike. Aversion. These emotions can’t thrive in the presence of empathy. That’s what fiction achieves: it’s an empathy delivery device, creating a magical set of conditions where you the reader – or you the listener – experience what’s unfolding for the main character as if you yourself were that person.

By using five-senses detail, the author lures your brain into a sensory state, so it’s as if you’re the one biting into that mouthful of cupcake the main character has in her hand. You’re the one feeling the slap of the track on your shoes as you run laps.

You’re the one who feels sick and angry when you encounter everyday racism: like the teacher who “forgets” to invite you to the school’s Young Captains ceremony, even though you’re Captain of the school’s Step Team.

You’re the one confused when a librarian hands you a gritty novel of inner-city Black heartbreak, assuming that your Blackness means you’ll identify with the disadvantaged, fatherless main character (you’re the son of a Fortune 500 CEO).

Fight racism in your family

If you’re white, handing your kids great books by modern Black American authors is a huge step you can take right now to cultivate empathy in your children. Here’s some awesome Black fiction to get you started.

There’s an even more comprehensive list here below, comprising children’s writers of color and other authors from a huge variety of communities, from ProjectLITComm

These books can help you, within your family, to combat the racism that’s in the air, like it or not — like that story about the fish who didn’t know what water was. The invisible privilege that white children enjoy in most environments is water, too. But the real enemy here is racism itself, and it will take a lifelong, proactive effort for you to combat it, especially if you’re white.

That means taking active antiracism steps like calling out your family members, neighbors, friends or taxi driver when they drop a racist comment. Try it. It’s freeing. You may not be able to change minds, but you can try. Are you trying?

Do you know the racial justice organizations near you that work to change minds and fight racial bias?

Have you opened your wallet to them?

Why is there a picture of football trading cards on this blog post?

When my kids were very small, a football (soccer) trading card had somehow made it onto our kitchen table. “I don’t like brown people,” my five year old said casually, looking at the picture of the athlete. I wasn’t sure I’d heard them right. Where had THAT come from? Turns out it had come from school, a racist comment dropped by a classmate.

We immediately had The Chat: about how millions of people have been treated very badly and even killed because they have skin that’s brown. My kid burst into tears, saying, “I didn’t know…I didn’t know!”

I’m not painting myself a hero for doing This Very Basic Thing: intercept racist comments immediately. Talk about racist ideas. Blast them out of the water. This is so basic. The thing is, antiracism is a proactive, tiring fight that needs us to do much more than the basics, although they’re a good start.

That’s because racist ideas — breathtaking, unfounded, cunningly constructed ideas not only of non-white inferiority, but of white supremacy — are the foundation stone of empire, the wealth of nations, and the flaming catastrophe that is modern capitalism. Dr. Ibram X. Kendi’s book on this topic is a must-read. There’s even a children’s translation of Dr. Ibram’s book, STAMPED: RACISM, ANTIRACISM AND YOU, for your kids to read, co-authored with Jason Reynolds. It’s in the ProjectLITComm graphic above. Go get it.

Because racist ideas have been force-fed to white Americans in particular, it means I have a lifelong struggle in me, too, to find and fight the racism inside. I used to think, Well, I can’t be a racist, I’m a children’s author. But now I see that, as children’s author, I’d better work harder to find the racism in me and fight it every day.

And I need to do the work, too, of being a genuine ally, not a bystander, to my fellow Americans: they’re fighting for justice, dignity, and policing they don’t have to be afraid of.

That’s a good fight.

Sheila M. Averbuch is a former journalist and author of the thriller FRIEND ME for middle grade readers, publishing November 2020 with Scholastic Press US. Follow on Instagram or Twitter at @sheilamaverbuch


Weathering a crisis with a writer’s mind

Writers and other creatives can only make their art because they are hypersensitive to the world and the human condition. So it’s no surprise that a global crisis like the pandemic makes such a deep imprint on us, it can choke off our ability to create anything at all. And hearing people say, as they did this week, that William Shakespeare wrote King Lear during a plague lockdown doesn’t help.

I’m writing the first draft of a brand-new middle grade book and am one of the lucky ones. With the exception of a few panicky days where all I can do is watch the news and nurse my cracked knuckles and dream of rubbing my eye again one day, I’ve been able to keep writing. But two years ago exactly, I was at a total standstill, laid low by the flu and by frustration that my writing was going nowhere (it passed, thank God, and I began writing again after a few months).

What I told myself then is what I would tell any writer now: you don’t have to create. You don’t have to stress that other people seem to be creating and you’re the only one who isn’t.

A salve for the writer’s mind

Just trust that the sensitive, creative mind you were born with is taking it all in and maybe, one day, will do something with it. Or not. But it’s okay to crumble. If anxiety, or mortal terror, are pressing in, stop yourself looking at the news any more than twice a day. Treat yourself to anything you find to be a salve. Sketch a daffodil. Watch Patrick Stewart read sonnets. Get a step-by-step guide on how to do that mindfulness breathing thing from the Zen monks who mastered it.

If you’re up to it, try a creativity exercise like this one led by Jason Reynolds, National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature in the US, just to get the free-associations moving in your brain.

Don’t forget the flowers

None of us is Shakespeare. But this tulip is: it’s the very first tulip to flower in the garden, every year, and it raised its face to the sun this week. Wherever you are, this tulip is for you.

Sheila M. Averbuch is a former journalist who’s interviewed billionaires, hackers and would-be Mars colonists. She co-founded the Scotland network of SCBWI and is author of the middle-grade thriller FRIEND ME, publishing in 2020 with Scholastic US. She holds a 2019 New Writers Award from the Scottish Book Trust.

Booklove in the time of Covid

My debut novel FRIEND ME doesn’t come out until November, but I have some sense of the particular heartbreak now hitting my fellow Roaring 20s Debuts who have recent and upcoming launch dates. For these writers, in-person publicity is now impossible, and the effect on school and library sales is still unknown.

Do you or young people you know have reading time on their hands, perhaps an abundance of reading time stretching from sunup to bedtime? Please consider giving some love to these debut authors whose lifelong dreams are coming up hard against the reality of a global pandemic.

I’ve personally read and loved How to Make Friends with the Sea, My Life As A Potato, To Fly Among the Stars and From the Desk of Zoe Washington. I’m in the middle of the wonderful What Stars Are Made Of, and I can’t wait for Efrén Divided and Stand Up, Yumi Chung!

But that’s just a sliver of what’s available! And WordPress won’t let me upload too many more thumbnails into this blog without going all skewy.

See a list of debuts here

All of these books and their fellow 2020 middle-grade debuts can be browsed here. I think they all sound amazing, and I’m thrilled to see there’s a wonderful selection of diverse and #ownvoices stories. These folks are finally changing the face of kidlit publishing. Go have a browse and, above all, enjoy!

These books are going to be worth your time. It’s unimaginably difficult for a manuscript to rise to the top in the competitive children’s literature market. These authors have beaten the odds by attracting a publisher’s attention and getting that elusive book deal.

You can help make that final bit of their dream come true by showing some booklove and sharing one of these stories with a young person.

If you use Instagram, why not follow the hashtag #roaring20sdebut on Instagram for the latest news, online events and read-alouds?

Sheila M. Averbuch is author of the middle-grade thriller FRIEND ME, publishing November 2020 with Scholastic Press US. Follow on Instagram at @sheilamaverbuch

Cover reveal for my debut novel FRIEND ME

There are times when the writing journey has hard, tangible milestones, and seeing the cover of my debut for the first time has been one of those this-is-really-happening moments.

What do you think of it? It instantly gave me the right feels, down in my gut. FRIEND ME is the story of an Irish girl who moves to America and is badly bullied in middle school, and how she gets past it — and then gets into even worse trouble — with the help of her new BFF.

I love the smashed phone, the way Roisin is indistinct in the reflection, and the no-escape way she’s tunneled towards the girls whose actions (and inactions) come to define Roisin’s daily ordeal of school.

FRIEND ME has undercurrents of tech swirling in and around it, not least the social media apps that Roisin finds it hard to look away from, and the clinical shininess of the lockers accentuates that vibe. Tremendous thanks to the artists whose talent made this cover: the art was created by Mike Heath and the design is by Elizabeth B. Parisi and Yaffa Jaskoll.

FRIEND ME publishes 10 November 2020 in North America with Scholastic US. If you’re curious to read, you’d be doing me a favor if you add FRIEND ME to your to-read shelf on Goodreads .

Here’s what the legendary Elizabeth Wein has said about the book: “Friend Me is a heart-racing escalation from toxic teen power play and the dangers of social media to a darkly searing near-future thriller. A stunning debut.” Elizabeth wrote the New York Times bestselling Code Name Verity amongst other fantastic works (see a review of her middle-grade prequel to CNV, The Pearl Thief, here).

If you’d like to get regular updates on FRIEND ME, as well as recommended kidlit great reads from other authors, podcasts on children’s publishing and upcoming events for children’s writers, you can sign up for my quarterly kidlit newsletter here.

How important are covers in the books you choose to read?

My publication deal and other miracles

I’m still reeling from the best news I’ve had in my professional career: Scholastic in New York will publish my debut for middle grade readers, FRIEND ME, in autumn 2020. My agent Jennifer Laughran is to thank for this magnificent turn of events, as is my editor Emily Seife at Scholastic. Emily hasn’t just championed the project heartily through the acquisitions process, she’s also been the most profoundly sensitive and ingenious reader I’ve ever encountered, with inspired editorial suggestions that have pushed this story to be so much better. The deal announcement is here:

How can I express what it’s been like to go through this experience? I’d been writing on and off for children for more than a decade when, in 2014, I attempted my first NaNoWriMo. That’s when I wrote the first draft of a middle grade adventure I really thought was going to be a winner: I honed it to what I felt was a bright shine, including writing 35 versions of my cover letter, pitching it at and winning The Hook, SCBWI’s national pitching competition in the UK, and signing with my agent, Jennifer. That manuscript and my next one got fantastic feedback, but neither of those projects was quite The One.

To be honest, life then took over. My health, mental and physical, headed south, and I found myself inside a deeper hole than I thought possible. I stopped writing.

It was months before I could face a keyboard again. Even when I did, I decided that what I wrote was just for therapy: I wouldn’t show it to anyone, I’d just focus on the catharsis of it. So I began, and never have I written from a place of such anguish. I wrote the first words when I was at 30,000 feet, in May 2018, flying home to see my mother and sister in Massachusetts. Miraculously, I looked up and realized a couple hours had passed. Mentally I’d been miles away from the cramped abnormality of the aircraft cabin, absorbed with the opening scene of the book – a scene that would later be rewritten, then rewritten again, then cut altogether. I remember how good it was to experience that sense of wellness again, a feeling that only writing can give me.


I grabbed onto that wellness and followed it, taking baby steps. I wrote slowly, more or less every day, averaging just 250 words a day, I realize, when I look back at my Pomodoro statistics.

I knew where I wanted the story to go, including the accident that would befall my main character’s bully. I also knew the unhealthy turn that I wanted her relationship with her best friend to take; but the rest I left open, writing scene after scene, following only the sincerest motivation of the main character. If it didn’t make sense for her to do a thing, it didn’t happen.

It was around then that I had breakfast in Edinburgh with a friend from Harvard, Maile Meloy, now a celebrated novelist and short story writer. We discussed her book (an excellent thriller for adults called DO NOT BECOME ALARMED) and what her characters did in it, and I told her I felt strange about pantsing rather than plotting my current story.

Maile gave me the confidence not to worry: “Just stand your characters up, make them want something, and don’t let them get it,” she said. Scene after scene, that exact strategy had been working for me, so I carried on. What I ended up with, by that October, was the mostly tightly-woven story I had ever written, with clear and strong motivations throughout.

The Call

Jump forward to May 2019, and a Google Hangouts message from my agent at 10pm (“I know it’s late there – I have just sent you some very exciting news”) made me shriek and brought my daughter to the top of the stairs. All I could say was, “Oh my God, oh my God.” Because there it was: I was going to be published. And all it required was that I write not just from the heart, but from the deepest, darkest abyss I’d ever experienced.

It was almost a year to the day since I had written those first words on the flight to Boston.

I may never know why the earlier manuscripts weren’t The One, but I sense that there is a chiming between who I am as a person and the subject matter of FRIEND ME that the other stories didn’t have. I don’t just mean my own experiences of bullying, but also my career as a technology journalist, which has steeped me in the kind of tech that surrounds (and overwhelms) my main character. Roisin’s life is as phone-dependent and social-media-fuelled as the vast majority of young people today; throw classic middle-school bullying into the mix, and it’s an explosive combination.

Writing and your wellness

Even if I had not struck it lucky with the publication deal, I know now, after what I wrote through and out of last year, that I would’ve kept writing no matter what. For me, there’s no salve like a well-written sentence, a sturdy paragraph, a pleasing scene. I find tremendous comfort in re-reading something solid that I’ve written. Its solidity helps me regain my own, when I’m wobbling.

If you’re reading this, and you’re a writer, keep writing. If you can’t write – as I couldn’t, for months – try at least to protect your writing time and do something else satisfying in it, something creative or mentally stimulating (I practiced my old acting monologues, and tried new recipes, and learned Japanese). That way, if and when you feel you can work with words again, your writing time is ready and waiting for you, and it hasn’t been swamped by life.

Even if the world hasn’t yet given you a signal that it needs your writing, you need your writing. And a happier world starts with a happy you.

Polishing a draft: to nitpick or not to nitpick?


When you’re revising your writing, do you relish the chance to make it shine or agonize that all your polishing may be for nothing when you need to revise the next draft?

I’ve been doing structural edits on my work in progress, a middle grade thriller, and despite the fact that line edits will be next – the nitpicking examination of each sentence – I can’t stop myself from polishing the sentences even at this structural stage.

Continue reading “Polishing a draft: to nitpick or not to nitpick?”