Dave Eggers' dystopian novel The Circle explores the world of the not-too-distant future when a powerful Internet company starts to infiltrate every facet of daily life. The description of the company, also called The Circle, borrows from Google and Facebook in its details, but it supersedes both in its unbridled power and push toward transparency in all things.
In Ellen Ullman's review of the book in The New York Times, she writes: "The company demands transparency in all things; two of its many slogans are SECRETS ARE LIES and PRIVACY IS THEFT. Anonymity is banished; everyone's past is revealed; everyone's present may be broadcast live in video and sound. Nothing recorded will ever be erased. The Circle's goal is to have all aspects of human existence - from voting to love affairs - flow through its portal, the sole such portal in the world."
The novel functions like a parable. It asks the question: What happens when a society gives up privacy and a private company controls too much information? And then gives the answer: A repressive totalitarian regime.
The cultural criticism in The Circle extends to social media, social media marketing and collecting data for marketing. Eggers shows a world where all three of these things are more prevalent and more powerful than they are now, and he points out how they might go awry.
The protagonist, Mae, who works for the Circle in Customer Experience, is encouraged to grow her own social media presence. Indeed, everyone at the Circle is rated according to his or her social media popularity. Keeping up her social media profile is challenging because of the onslaught of information that Mae's online life encompasses.
Also as part of her job, Mae is asked to start answering market research questions while she works. A headset feeds her questions-about her vacation preferences, about her hair care choices-which she answers with "smiles" or "frowns." She feels that providing information about her consumer choices is a sacred duty, that she is making the world better by sharing it.
Finally, Mae is provided with a "raw conversion score" that shows her how much money has been spent in response to her online actions. This score updates constantly as she "smiles" at items online or posts images or preferences. Mae enjoys her the concrete evidence of her growing influence.
A little more than halfway through the book, Mae "goes transparent" which means that she carries a camera that sees, hears and records everything she experiences. This makes her famous on social media, which makes her every choice significant to the Circle and public perception of the Circle. She is the ultimate PR person.
Mercer, Mae's ex-boyfriend, is one of the most vocal critics of the Circle, the death of privacy, and the way that social media has changed personal relationships. In dialogue, he says to Mae, "Every time I see or hear from you, it's through this filter. You send me links, you quote someone talking about me, you say you saw a picture of me on someone's wall ... it's always this third-party assault. Even when I'm talking to you face-to-face you're telling me what some stranger thinks of me. It's like we're never alone. Every time I see you, there's a hundred other people in the room. You're always looking at me through a hundred other people's eyes ... there's this new neediness - it pervades everything ... The tools you guys create actually manufacture unnaturally extreme social needs. No one needs the level of contact you're purveying. It improves nothing."
Mae's obsession with her social media popularity and her raw conversion score as well as the delight she takes in answering market research questions are maligned by Eggers. Mae's concerns are portrayed as naïve and petty.
The Circle has been criticized for lacking subtly and for characters that lack depth. But book critic Ron Charles says, "...Who can afford subtlety in these latter days of Jenna Marbles and apps for babies? The Circle is Brave New World for our brave new world - and let's be frank: Aldous Huxley's classic is no model of understatement, either. Now that we all live and move and have our being in the panopticon, Eggers's novel may be just fast enough, witty enough and troubling enough to make us glance away from our twerking Vines and consider how life has been reshaped by a handful of clever marketers."