Sunday, September 13, 2020

The Social Dilemma | Lefsetz Letter

The Social Dilemma | Official Trailer | Netflix

Distribution is king. Always was and always will be. You want your work on the most available platform, the one with the most eyeballs. And presently that is Netflix.

The purveyance of art used to be based on scarcity. There was only so much, so you could dictate the terms upon which it was consumed. But the internet busted that model and the only creative art form that has adjusted is music. Streaming outlets make everything available, removing the filter from the pipe. If you pay, you can listen. And, if you’re willing to listen to ads, you can listen without paying. So, it becomes a matter of getting known, getting attention, amidst the mass of product. Scarcity is history and everyone is affected. The barrier to entry is very low, but it turns out that people all don’t want to listen to the same thing. The big may be bigger than the small, but they are nowhere near as big as they used to be.

Same situation in television. Every show on television would have been canceled in the old three network world. You’d see ratings in the twenties and thirties. There was a limited number of shows, and there was a huge audience hungry for shows. But then they got choice, assuming they were willing to pay, cable expanded the channel universe and if you wanted to pay even more you could get premium cable channels, like HBO and Showtime. Actually, deals used to be rampant, as was outright stealing, but then the cable systems all went digital, increasing the number of channels, and discounts went by the wayside and stealing was stanched. And the monopoly distributors, the cable systems, were raking in dough. Their only real competitor was satellite, but now satellite is tanking, because that’s not what people want. People want a premium pipe and then they want to layer on their own services, like Netflix and Amazon and… As for the cable providers, they’re about to get a competitor in 5G, but the rollout has been slow and different types of 5G have different speeds and the fastest has the smallest reach and problems penetrating obstacles, but 5G causes Covid anyway, right? Or maybe it’s cancer. Or both. Just hold on, give it some time, the ills of 5G, however false and fatuous, are about to be amplified as the service grows.

That’s what we’re talking about here, the spread of disinformation. The amplification of falsehoods. The lack of facts we can all agree on. That’s what “The Social Dilemma” is ultimately about, and more.

“The Social Dilemma” is the most e-mailed creative project in my inbox this week. Not a record. The problem with records is they’re all niche, none appeal to all, whereas the tech companies have monopolies and we all use their services and we’re interested in their effects, since we’re addicted.

So, if you follow the movie business, and you probably don’t, you’re aware that all the studios are holding back their premium product as a result of the relative failure of the release of “Tenet.” Seems people are not ready to leave their houses and congregate, at least not in suitable numbers. But the movie business signed its death warrant years ago, studios decided to make fewer and fewer films while being sure they all had worldwide appeal and the pictures lost their edge, and edge is what hooks you, what makes something successful. And the truth is edge inherently contains polarization, there will be people who don’t want anything to do with the project, who excoriate it. So, the movie studios have lost their hold on the public consciousness just like the television networks, turns out making everything for all people is a bad business model in a world where there is not scarcity.

Theoretically network television is free, assuming you want to buy an antenna, don’t live in a valley or behind a mountain and are not that far from a transmitter. Which is why we got cable to begin with, to eliminate those problems. But it turns out many can live without network TV. Turns out many people can live without cable TV. Yes, cable. Where they go in search of the lowest common denominator and when they find it they run it into the ground. But streaming has a different model. The goal is to get you to keep paying every month, therefore the appeal of a specific show is irrelevant, as long as the smorgasbord of product keeps you drinking from the trough.

So, on Netflix, you have a plethora of product, little of it completely bland, some downright serious, and everybody in America has an account or access thereto. Netflix’s reach far outstrips that of Disney+ and Apple+ and HBO Max, its only real competitor is Amazon Prime, with its slow software, lousy interface and lack of hit product. Hit product is what drives subscription, it gives you notice, no different from a hit single selling an album. The hit doesn’t have to be compromised, it doesn’t have to fit a formula, it just has to appeal to the spreaders of information, that get a conflagration of word of mouth started.

Therefore, the biggest thing in visual entertainment last week was “Away,” Netflix’s space oddity featuring Hilary Swank. People had access, and word of mouth spread. And despite low RottenTomatoes ratings, the series rose to number one on Netflix, proving that some shows are review-proof, and that being featured on the Netflix homepage is like the endcaps in the record stores of yore, they promote and sell product.

So, this week’s story is “The Social Dilemma.” It will have much more impact than Bob Woodward’s book, much more impact than any music released on Friday, because it’s on the biggest platform and it appeals to all people and you can view it on demand. Yes, unless your product is available on demand, you’re toast.

So, is “The Social Dilemma” a 10? A triumph? Actually, no, it’s imperfect. But that does not mean it’s not must-see TV. As a matter of fact, it’s the one show everybody needs to see, which is why my inbox is filling up, why word of mouth is spreading, because the film speaks to all of us, our hopes and dreams and our fear and despondence.

The social networks. They’re the enemy. Right? But we all use them incessantly. We just need to get Zuckerberg to get in line, just like people think we need to get Daniel Ek in line, and everything will be hunky-dory.

You see the anti-streaming people live in a bubble. Where their false beliefs are amplified. And if you pierce that bubble, even with truth, you’re excoriated. Same deal in politics. Social media has caused polarization, that’s the game the algorithms play, to keep you addicted they serve you more of what you’re already interested in. Which is why you can see people on TV spouting inanities like Antifa is responsible for the wildfires, never mind QAnon.

So what we’ve got in “The Social Dilemma” is a bunch of talking heads, all with experience in the social media world, many at the true heart of it, having worked for Facebook and Google and Twitter and…telling us about the evils of the product. But if you think you know it all, you’ll still learn more. Like the algorithms are out of control, that even Zuckerberg does not have power over them. Yes, we’ve been hearing about AI forever, and if you read the papers you believe that its implementation is on the horizon. But that is wrong, it’s already here. The computer, via machine learning, decides what you see. The programmers input some information, and then the final decisions are made by computers crunching the data.

Not that the programmers do not have power.

The platforms’ goal is to keep you addicted, spending time on the services.

Now there’s a fictitious scenario playing alongside the talking heads, of a family and how it is intertwined with social media. And one of the interesting things is nobody knows how much they’re actually using these services. They think it’s an hour a day when it’s two and a half. And the turning point was around 2010, when everybody got a smartphone and the social media services were up and running and childhood suicide rates went up.

I’m not anti-screen time. I know, that puts me in the minority, but the fact that we can all connect via our devices eliminates a ton of loneliness, imagine if we had no internet today? Whew, how would you cope in the Covid era. But the truth is, the nature of growing up is many feel insecure and inferior and bullies are rampant and when you’re publicly shamed, when someone reaches out and zings you, maybe even someone you don’t even know, it hurts. So, you end up putting forth a false image, which evidences happiness 24/7, which has no connection with the real you, assuming you haven’t offed yourself already.

So, these platforms are not in control of the content. You provide the content. And based on what sticks, they feed you more of it. And everybody, I mean EVERYBODY gets a different feed, even different Google results, and you wonder why our country has devolved into tribalism.

And it’s only gonna get worse. And when you watch “The Social Dilemma” you’ll realize how much at fault these platforms are. The issue is not only foreign interference, that’s just the cherry on top. Meanwhile, as Roger McNamee says in the movie, the Russians are using Facebook properly, what it’s designed for, they’re not breaking any rules.

Think about that.

So, we’ve got Pizzagate and the aforementioned QAnon, laughable on the surface. But in your feed someone you respect amplifies them and suddenly you’re in a group of people that all feel the same way and you become a believer.

Let me tell you a story. I had to go to the eye doctor, I lost a contact lens. And the doctor told me about a couple of patients that he had seen that morning. One patient lived in a $22 million dollar house and was ranting and raving that Covid is a hoax. Furthermore, her husband is a physician. But even worse was the cardiologist, who lives nearby, who came in saying she hadn’t been able to sleep for seven days. She’d watched the Republican convention and she was so upset…if Biden is elected they’re gonna come and take her house! Yes, if the Democrats win she’s not gonna have a place to live. The eye doctor had a great comeback, he said he hadn’t discussed it with his wife, but he was sure she’d agree…that if the cardiologist’s house was taken, she could have theirs. And the cardiologist didn’t laugh, she said REALLY?

We could sit down and teach these people the facts, but they won’t believe them. It’s not only Trump who has eroded credibility, but even more these social networks, where falsehoods are spread as I type this, and they grow, and the truth is those in power don’t even have the ability to stop this!

So, social networks are much more of a problem than you’ve been led to believe. They are contributing to the division of our country. Even more than Trump and Fox News. It’s online, on these services, that the stories are amplified and twisted and spread to millions, who never hear another side. And, those in charge don’t have the power to stop this, and they don’t even want to, because it would mess with their business model of slicing the data ever more thinly to sell it to advertisers.

And the social networks just don’t sit back passively, they actively poke you to stay engaged, to not sign off, because then they can learn more about you and sell you more ads. Yes, they’ve built a profile on your wants and desires that far exceeds your worst nightmare, and they’re selling this data. And when Apple said they were going to give iOS users the option to opt out, to not be tracked by Facebook, et al, Mark Zuckerberg had a fit! It was all over the business press, to the point that Apple is delaying this feature. Yes, the social networks’ business model is selling your data, and if they don’t have it, they’re done.

Once again, you probably believe you know all this, all the ills of social media. Trust me, you don’t. “The Social Dilemma” will only build in the number of viewers and its impact. And don’t expect the government to address the problem, it is always multiple steps behind and those in office don’t understand the ins-and-outs, never mind being paid by their donors to overlook problems.

This goes far beyond this year’s election, this speaks to democracy!

But it gets even worse. One of the talking heads, Tristan Harris, worked at Google and was so upset at this hoodwinking of the company’s users that he spent hours after work writing a manifesto. And when he finally gave it to friends at the company it spread like wildfire, making it all the way to Larry Page’s desk. And what happened? NOTHING! That’s what people don’t understand about modern society. You think if you’re on TV your act will break, you’ll get a big leg up. No, NOTHING does that anymore, NOTHING! First and foremost you don’t reach enough eyeballs, and those who are aware are inundated with a tsunami of product every day, every hour! So, you can drop your album and it can be done in a day, over, never to gain any legs. Which is why Daniel Ek says to release a steady stream of product, to give you a better chance of gaining an audience and keeping listeners engaged and what do music makers say? I DON’T MAKE MUSIC THAT WAY! I MAKE ALBUMS! They’re pissing in the wind. The paradigm has shifted, and it’s got little to do with Daniel Ek, he’s just speaking the truth. But, of course, you can’t hear it, because you’re in your silo, your friends on Facebook and Instagram are putting logs on the fire, amping you up, yes, we must defend the album, streaming is the devil, we can stop the wheels of progress, to the point where you don’t even want to hear an explanation of what is going on.

But “The Social Dilemma” gives you an explanation of what is going on with social media. Watch it.


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