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. 

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?

Plot, structure, death, death and more death

Edinburgh Central Library SCBWI workshop

I’m fixated on plot and structure at the moment – you may be, too, if you’re a writer tackling revisions on a work in progress or a NaNoWriMo draft from last year.

This year, for the first time, I’m editing a manuscript that I’ve left for a long, long rest. I wrote it more than a year ago. I haven’t let a first draft sit for so long before, but I’ve been tied up with revisions on my middle grade sci-fi which is on submission (gulp, choke) with publishers. I completely credit plot and structure thinkers like Darcy Pattison and James Scott Bell with helping me get that manuscript this far – it was their advice that helped me turn my earlier draft of the sci-fi story into something stronger.

If you haven’t read NOVEL METAMORPHOSIS (which was the one craft book that all four tutors at the BookBoundUK Retreat I attended in 2014 unanimously recommended) definitely get a hold of it. I’m also slightly addicted currently to James Scott Bell’s WRITE YOUR NOVEL FROM THE MIDDLE.

Here in Edinburgh our SCBWI Southeast Scotland network hosted a workshop by Scottish YA author Christina Banach earlier this month, giving a quick tour of Bell’s plot and structure techniques. Places were limited and sold out quickly for that intensive, but I did a write up of the plot workshop here for Words and Pictures, the SCBWI British Isles magazine, if you want to read up.

What struck me most about the day was the renewed focus it gave me on plot stakes and character “death” – be that physical, emotional (“dying inside”) or professional death – as James Scott Bell discusses in his various structure books.

In fact, on reading THE LIE TREE recently by Frances Hardinge – it’s just won the overall Costa award here in the UK, deservedly so – it struck me that all three kinds of death are grappled with, both within the main character and within her father who she so admires. In fact the whole story could be described as “death by Victorianism;” wow, that era knew how to make folk suffer.

Reflect and snap

I’ve been trying to reflect more on my writing, as my SCBWI buddy Louise Kelly recommended; Snapchat has been useful for this, as it lets me scrapbook images and video clips that capture what I’m thinking about the revising process.

If you don’t know Snapchat, you’re probably not aged 18 to 24; neither am I. But it may be worth investigating, because it does make keeping a video diary quite easy. Although it first began as a straight messaging app, similar to Skype, Snapchat now lets anyone post pictures and videos to their “story,” a.k.a. public timeline, visible to anyone.

Snapchat poses huge challenges, though, for those of us trying to get a handle on it – and not just because all content vanishes after 24 hours. There are also no hashtags, no lists as on Twitter, and no way to search public timelines, although the user directory can be searched by user name. It’s like a treasure hunt, finding publishing peeps to follow, but some cool folks I’m following on Snapchat include mega-agent Suzie Townsend, plus Chronicle Books and Quirk Books (sztownsend81, ChronicleBooks and QuirkBooks).

I’m cobbling together my snaps in YouTube, but there’s not much there at the moment – could be useful, however, if you’re an author curious about how others are using Snapchat. I’M NO EXPERT, but I am rather enjoying what it’s doing for my vow to be more reflective.

Whatever you’re working on, I hope your writing’s going well. You can find me on Twitter here or add me on Snapchat at sheilamaverbuch.

 

 

How-to videos helping authors with social media

social-sheila

I am a huge fan of the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators and this year I’ve been contributing to its Words and Pictures blog zine, creating social media how-to videos demonstrating Twitter, Facebook, Pinterest and other social tools of relevance to authors and illustrators.

You can see the full collection of the social media how-videos here on Words and Pictures, which is published by the British Isles chapter of the society (if you’re not familiar with SCBWI, it’s the international professional organization for writers and illustrators of children’s literature — I would highly recommend joining to anyone wanting a career in this industry).

The most recent video looked at Pinterest for authors. Did you know you could collect images on Pinterest in a private board that no one else can see? Learn more here in “Pinterest at a glance,” or have a look at a Pinterest board I created: children’s literary editors, agents and publishers working in the UK.

I’m always delighted to answer any author’s or illustrator’s question in regards to social media if I can, so don’t hesitate to drop me a mail if there’s something specific you’d like to see me demonstrate.

My e-mail is sheila@spacekidsbooks.com, or find me on Twitter at @spacekidsbooks

Thank you to Jan Carr, Mel Rogerson and the whole Words and Pictures team for the chance to contribute!

What social media tools do you find most or least useful as an author? Let me know in the comments below.

How NASA sent my question about kids’ books to space

kids-books-inspired-astronauts-to-go-to-space

When not writing kids’ sci-fi, my day job is to help organisations use social media more effectively. I have to say, the way NASA and its international space agency partners use social media is teeth-chattering impressive – and I’m not just saying that because I got to participate in their most recent social media outreach to the public (my question was selected to ask the astronauts live in space; see video above).

What NASA is doing is simple: using social media to let the public, especially children, feel closer to missions and the scientists who carry them out. If, like me, you feel your spine turn to jelly when you see a rocket take off, or catch sight of the famous “big blue marble” picture of Earth taken during the Apollo missions, you will be delighted to discover the steady diet of thrilling content NASA and its partners are offering up on Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, Google Plus and other social platforms.

Reach out and touch space

Here’s just some of what I personally have been able to do over the past six months thanks to social media:

Not just NASA

One of the brightest stars in all this activity is of course not a NASA astronaut but Cmdr. Chris Hadfield from the Canadian Space Agency, who is on board the ISS currently and has gathered a huge following due to his regular tweets, including pictures, sharing what he sees out the window and inside the station. Hadfield’s tweets and pictures regularly make the front page of national newspapers and he also, quite wonderfully, answers children’s questions whenever possible, like this beautiful exchange about spacewalking.

The guitar-playing commander also participates in Reddit AMAs (“Ask me anything”), where he gives insights into everything, from how to shave in space to what space smells like — he’s even done live music collaborations with the Barenaked Ladies and the Chieftains, singing “Moondance.”

 

hadfield-jam-in-space

(pic from Commander Hadfield on Twitter)

Incidentally after my question about kids books, Commander Hadfield contacted me on Twitter to say he’d actually reread his most inspiring childhood space book, Michael Collins’ Carrying the Fire, just weeks ago while he was in quarantine prior to launch. (You can imagine my deep thrill at being contacted by the Commander – I think I spoke only in exclamation marks for the following two hours.)

Going direct, and spreading the word exponentially, with social media

I’m old enough to remember the later Apollo launches, and the fact that broadcast television had lost some interest in what was becoming rote: rockets go into space; astronauts do missions and come home. Social media has given international space programs the chance to be their own broadcasters, conveying live images on platforms like YouTube without relying on mainstream media.

But their use of social goes beyond self-broadcast. NASA brilliantly exploits the viral, tell-your-friends power of social media, most effectively in last Friday’s Google Plus long-distance hangout with the International Space Station. The hangout was the first of its kind for NASA, and allowed us earthlings to post questions directly to in-orbit astronauts. The event, directed by NASA’s tireless social media manager John Yembrick, was publicised across all social platforms, with the help of a dedicated hashtag (#askstro) that NASA promoted for some weeks before, gathering questions, including video questions recorded and uploaded to YouTube.

For a social media geek like me, what was probably most interesting to witness was the morning of the event, when the NASA social media team put up a new Facebook post where anyone could comment, suggesting a question for the astronauts. Refreshing the page every few seconds, I watched as thousands of new “likes” accumulated on that Facebook post: each of those likes spread the message about this live event across thousands more Facebook friends, replicating the message instantly and exponentially.

NASA knows exactly what it’s doing on social media — it even has a fascinating program that allows influential social media users to apply for full press accreditation to visit NASA (at their own expense) during launches, and tweet and share what they experience under the dedicated #NASAsocial hashtag. That’s like the equivalent of the White House press corps suddenly opening itself up to any really great tweeters who can prove they should be there. That’s what I call enlightened.

What does all this mean?

I hope it means that the space program is starting to inspire kids again, thanks to the marvellous accessibility now possible over social media. Twenty years ago, who’d have thought it would be so easy for kids to chat with in-orbit astronauts, and hear those astronauts describe the childhood experiences — the eye-opening books, the inspirational physics teachers — that set them on their path to space? The space program really is alive and well, and it’s all good.