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The Circle: Dystopian Social Media Takes Over the World

ImageAccording to a Pew Research Center study, social media usage in 2012 was down in almost every age group. By the end of 2013, it had shot back up with a vengeance.  Of course, there is still a sizeable holdout from social media usage in every age bracket.

A few of those abstainers are dear friends, even if they do occasionally send me an article or video in which social media devotees are mocked and ridiculed. In person, they are in the habit of asking questions like, "why would you want to post photographs of your life for strangers to see?"

I admit, there is an element of veracity in what these friends ask: we practitioners of social media frequently overindulge, and are worthy targets of satire. After all, the social media age is an inchoate era, in which the imprint of our times is still being etched.  Furthermore, there is pretty clear evidence that social media usage stimulates the neurotransmitter dopamine, which has also been tied to addictive behaviors. Perhaps we adoptees of social media have been overdoing it a bit.

It is only to be expected that we have earned the right to be the subject of a literary novel of our day, and that expectation has been fulfilled by Dave Eggers in his book The Circle. Like the friendly ridicule mentioned above, the book hits altogether too close to home for comfort.

The setting for the book is a vast social media and search engine company; a kluge, perhaps, of Google and Facebook. The story's heroine, Mae, begins as a new employee in the customer care team, and is exhorted to raise her customers' satisfaction scores in an increasingly manic competition. Egger's fictional company takes workplace gamification to the extreme; when a customer provides too low of a score, an employee reaches back out to the customer to discover the cause of the low evaluation. The process acts as asort of browbeating inevitably resulting in an increase of the original assessment.

Transparency is a dominant theme, as The Circle creates both devices and software to allow individuals to share more and more of their lives. With an invention of a wearable device evocative of Google Glass, individuals begin to share everything in their lives. 

After the novel's heroine discovers that an intimate encounter was surreptitiously video-recorded, Mae is encouraged by one of The Circle's leaders to embrace openness:

Mae, we would finally be compelled to be our best selves. And I think people would be relieved. There would be this phenomenal global sigh of relief. Finally, finally, we can be good. In a world where bad choices are no longer an option, we have no choice but to be good. Can you imagine?"

The parallels between The Circle and its real-life models are striking. In one letter to Facebook shareholders, Mark Zuckerberg, wrote: "Facebook was not originally created to be a company. It was built to accomplish a social mission -- to make the world more open and connected." Google, too, has famously insisted that users of Google Plus use their real names, a policy that has spread to YouTube.

A strong insistence on total transparency has also been cited as an element in cult brainwashing. When a person confesses, they often feel that a burden has been lifted, and there is an increased feeling of sympathy. At the same time, there can be an inequity in the ownership of information that gives one party power over the other. It doesn't require someone given to wearing an aluminum foil hat to question the uneasy direction of technologies and society.

Parody, though, can smooth out the rough edges and blur the complexity of reality into one fuzzy simplification. The majority of social media practitioners that I've met have a profound appreciation for privacy, and if anything, have begun to define new areas of social intercourse in which there is a private-public. When someone polarizes the world of social media into such extremes, they miss the complexity and richness of the new norms of privacy and relationships; of social networks redefined; and whole new approaches to thinking and problem solving.

Egger's parody may have us squirming a bit for his too-close-to-home observations. If so, the questions the novel raise deserve the discussion. I only regret that the portrayal of the complexities of social media and their impact on society don't play a role in this novel.  That's a book that is still to be written.

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