(no real spoilers)
Dave Eggers’ The Circle is a fascinating book that takes a topic that you think you thought about a lot already and makes you think even more and in a different way about it. The topic is the internet in general and social media and privacy specifically. Eggers is always a brilliant writer and his versatility is simply impressive. But still I wouldn’t have expected this book from him, not because of its quality, but because of its themes. It’s a highly enjoyable but at the same time incredibly thought-provoking book that makes you reflect on your attitude towards social media. Sure, you could argue that he is overdoing it a little in depicting the future and the consequences, but then again, who knows? Together with Brian K. Vaughan and Marcos Martin’s The Private Eye, the question of how far are we willing to go and are we aware what it means is really prevalent.
The book is about Mae Holland, who joins The Circle, a multimedia company that basically rules the internet. They have the biggest social media following and are constantly finding new technologies for making lives more “transparent”, as they call it there. One of the arguments they pose is that if you’re constantly under watch, you will behave better. This assumption is carried forth to some extremes, eventually leading to people broadcasting their everyday life all the time, getting feedback on everything they do. Feedback is the other issue explored here, the idea of likes (called “smiles” here) and surveys, so that you constantly get comments, make connections to other people, find interest groups and share everything with everyone. I’m not sure if you can see that all of this can sound somewhat intriguing and surely would be used this way by many people (as it is done already to some degree). I point this out because Eggers is clever enough not only to show the dangers of all of this, but to make it appealing enough so that we understand why people would go that far and also ask ourselves how far we personally have been going already. Do we have a clear line for ourselves?
What he also shows excellently is the way people engage in these activities and basically trap themselves in constantly following up on what other people write, replying, commenting and so on. There is a point made several times that this takes so much time that could be used for doing something real. I agree with that but find that not as relevant, especially since that can also be said for gaming, TV or even books. What I find more interesting is the idea that most of those activities serve the function of filling the void that so many people feel in our culture. By having the feeling of connecting with so many people, by busying yourself with something you chose yourself, you forget about the void that is growing because of all the senseless things our culture asks us to do (school, work, etc.). Even if social media interaction can be senseless too, it at least feels worthwhile and personal. It seems to be about us. That’s what makes it so intriguing and so hard to see how much time we can waste with it. Add to that a feeling of structure, of gaining knowledge, of having control over your life and the appeal is even stronger.
The book is clever enough to not be a polemic, to not wave a cautionary finger too much, to not paint the Internet as evil. It shows us both sides of the argument while still painting a future that seems threatening. I think its biggest success lies in giving us a main character who does not really question any of this, who goes along and thinks she becomes a better person through it. That is a bold choice, but it pays off well because it makes the book much more convincing. I have some quibbles about the ending (let’s just say, about the shark and the mole), but apart from that, this is a book I can only recommend, just as any other book by Eggers. He has the talent of both writing very elegantly while always having something significant to say and, most importantly, always making (almost forcing) the reader to think about themselves and the world we live in, to put a different perspective on things we think we know (like Hurricane Katrina in Zeitoon or family in A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius or Africa and refugees in What Is the What). If I was able to write books, I would like to write like him.