Do you ever find yourself out and about, enjoying life, and suddenly you're taking a selfie, because you have the distinct and unpleasant feeling that if you don't document this event as soon and as publicly as possible, it didn't really happen? Do you find yourself, after posting that selfie to your Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram feeds, compulsively checking to see which people responded to it in a positive yet ultimately meaningless way? Do you find your enjoyment of life in general diminished unless you get the virtual thumbs-up from people you vaguely know, possibly know, don't actually remember from high school, or may have met once in a bar?
If any of these descriptions sound remotely like you, you need to run, not walk, to get a copy of The Circle.
This book made me think, then it made me nervous, and then it made me kind of ashamed. It explores the impulse of the Facebook generation to share every mundane detail of our lives, to serve up our minutiae for constant judgment by a jury of thousands of relative strangers. It made me question why, for example, I need to publicly announce that I've just celebrated a wedding anniversary with my husband, instead of simply observing it with the only other person intimately involved in that union and letting our memories be our memories, seen and justified by no one but ourselves.
Mae Holland is in her early twenties and has just hired on at the Circle, a blessedly fictional (for now) Google/Facebook hybrid company. She's awed by the amenities of the lush campus and the star power of the charismatic team of leaders, ready to play her part in helping the Circle achieve, well, if we're being honest, world domination.
Hopelessly naïve Mae isn't bothered by the fact that she is expected to attend multiple company social events per week, often at the expense of time with her family, or that she's expected to post about them as often as possible on her various social media feeds. In fact, she takes in stride pretty much all of the Circle's demands, because she's just grateful to have a job she likes at the most vibrant and progressive workplace in the world. However, as her meteoric rise through the ranks continues, she is faced with increasingly difficult decisions about how much transparency we owe to the outside world and how much privacy we can reasonably expect as the wireless world expands.
A common complaint I've seen about the book is that it's a bit heavy-handed in its criticism of social networking. That may not be entirely inaccurate, but we still need books like this one in the popular canon. One could argue Ray Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451 is heavy-handed in its depiction of the perils of a society that limits reading and curtails the free dispersal of information, but it's still a fabulously insightful book, ahead of its time in the way it holds a mirror up to the way we use and misuse technology. If authors like Eggers and Bradbury write seriously, it's because their theses deserve to be taken seriously. You know, before we all end up pathetic automatons with nary an original thought among us.
So I believe this is a book worth reading, and more importantly, worth thinking and talking about. We don't want to get sucked into the abyss of social technology and someday find ourselves like Mae, alienated from all the actual people in our lives and connected only to shapeless, nameless online entities with whom we have no face-to-face relationship.
But maybe we should talk about it in person, with real people, instead of just tweeting about it.