It’s been a big month for films about the internet (lol) with the release of both Feels Good Man, the story of Pepe the Frog, and The Social Dilemma, an overview of ethical shortcomings in social media platforms.
These are two very different films, and I wouldn’t have connected them if not for the happenstantial timing. But, there is some overlap between them. First some impressions of each individually. Spoiler alert.
Feels Good Man
Matt Furie is the archetypal permachill proto-domestic-cozy illustrator guy w/ booths at zine fairs, appropriately modest ambitions and a mid-life childlike demeanor. This isn’t a knock — it sounds pretty healthy.
He’s accidentally created a hate symbol
The whirlwind around Pepe looked like an absolute nightmare. Furie is of the last generation to develop a fully formed brain in a world sans-internet, and his naïveté of that world really shows. Again, probably a healthy thing.
Yeah, he spends his time sketching instead of scrolling and swiping, but the internet is a thing we all live in, regardless of the degree we choose to engage it individually.
The Social Dilemma
If you have any hand in producing technology, you likely aren’t the audience for this film. Tristan Harris’ tone often comes across as precious and pandering to me, but communicating the endless ethical dilemmas in technology to a common audience is a difficult task.
The ethics of technology are at the front of my mind, almost to a paralyzing degree, but fatigue has also set in from the increasing amount of uninformed eye-roll inducing tech-lash clickbait. While Facebook frequently does no good, I don’t believe it’s inherent.
Cringe aside, a redeeming moment for The Social Dilemma is an animated graph depicting processing power’s exponential growth, dismissing the argument both radio and television also introduced divisiveness.
While I think there is some truth in the assertion, the animation is compelling in establishing the difference of scale in a viscerally understandable way.
It’s also refreshing to hear criticism from those responsible for creating the technology. People with “skin in the game.” It appeared therapeutic — the first step is admitting there is a problem. One engineer had the distinction of “Invented Infinite Scrolling” lol.
What unifies these two films for me is a tension felt from disparate perspectives. Feels Good Man from that of an unwitting exposure to the tension, and Dilemma from that of those responsible for creating the condition the tension exists within.
A Facebook engineer in Dilemma credited with the Like1 button says “we thought it was for spreading positivity.” Something that feels good, man.
I believe it. I don’t assume anything nefarious or earnestly maniacal of most individuals creating the tech. A lot of this is emergent, and only in retrospect can you hope to understand.
But this gets risky at a global scale. Furie and Pepe were caught in a set of parameters optimized for engagement at all cost. Dilemma includes an iconic clip of Sean Parker in 2017:
…you are exploiting a vulnerability in human psychology. And I think that the inventors and creators… it’s me, it’s Mark, Kevin at Instagram, all of these people… understood this, consciously, and we did it anyway. — Sean Parker
These parallel truths and how they interact is complex, and the closest Dilemma comes to unpacking it Jaron Lanier simply saying “incentives.”
I’d suggest anyone with a healthy curiosity to watch Feels Good Man, and perhaps only send along The Social Dilemma to those unfamiliar with already established narratives within tech ethics.
The New Models podcast hosted the filmmakers behind Feels Good Man. Worth a listen, and provides some additional context to creating the film.
- Wasn’t the origin of the Like button Vimeo? w/e↩