From Tiger King, The Social Dilemma, Bad Boy Billionaires: India to a new season of Drive to Survive, 2020 has undoubtedly been the year of the documentary. Call it the lack of content being able to be produced physically or the growing desire for real life social justice narratives, but the demand for documentaries appears larger than ever before.
Tiger King took the world by storm this March. Many may attribute its success to the timely lockdown which forced people inside, hungry for new streaming content. While the lockdown may have been a factor, the real interest lies within the characters that the documentary follows. The reminder in the audience’s mind that the characters are in fact real people makes the show even stronger. The outrageous idea that the conflicts in this series are authentic makes it all the more intriguing, having the audience question—just for a moment—what if that was my life?
These documentaries follow a unique narrative structure that plays with the boundary of reality and fiction. Perhaps that is why the Kardashians have survived for so long—it is hard to believe that what they are doing is their real life. While those documentaries’ main purpose is entertainment, there is also a large, ever-growing market for documentaries that inform. The Social Dilemma came to Netflix earlier this month, bringing a controversial view of the role that social media plays in daily life. The documentary succeeded in its first goal: it started a conversation. Major news outlets began to cover a Netflix documentary like never before, with commentators, scholars and media companies all giving their opinions on the current and future problems that social media poses. As a generation that is deeply interconnected through social media, it is extremely important to analyze this documentary and understand how large companies may be taking advantage of common users without users even knowing. The premise of the documentary can be surmised from a quote by Yale professor Edward Tufte: “Only two industries call their customers ‘users’: illegal drugs and software.”
The documentary has an interesting premise and has prompted many viewers to promptly delete social media apps and swear them off forever. While many commentators are skeptical that these actions will have a lasting impact, they fail to understand that this film was not designed for the scholar but the casual viewer. Many critics are still reviewing the film as if it were still premiering at Sundance, which it did this January, instead of reviewing it as a common Netflix user who wants to watch something interesting.
These criticisms can be attributed to the lack of concrete solutions proposed by the film or the complexities it fails to cover later on, but such criticisms again fail to understand that the documentary was made to be a conversation starter, not a solution. Most social documentaries do not impose a solution because the problems that they cover are often too complex to tackle. The Social Dilemma was an overall success, starting conversations about the long-term effects of digital media and prompting viewers to reflect on how social media may be a contributing factor to our seemingly endless current socio-political problems.
For those interested more on the subject, check out the film’s website: www.thesocialdilemma.com