'Breaking the Internet': Social Media Society in Dave Eggers' The Circle

Some of world's most popular celebrities of the moment have built their success through documenting their lives on reality TV or social media. Offering your lifestyle as a product for others to consume has become big business. As a result, social media influencers are powerful tools for companies who want their product or service to be associated with the most popular figures and most attractive lifestyles. However, there are risks associated with being a public figure, even more so when your career is built around sharing such intimate details of your lifestyle - what you look like, what you own, where you live and work. Arguably the world's most influential social media user was very recently the target of a violent crime, one which was possibly assisted by her prolific sharing of personal information on line. This easy sharing of information, to gain attention and influence, is not reserved for celebrities, and the practice is becoming more widespread, potentially putting users at risk.

This social media culture has grown so rapidly, there has been limited time to assess the benefits and the risks. Through art, novels, films and TV, some have explored the implications of social media growth and the impact that could have on society and individuals. Dave Eggers' science fiction novel, The Circle, depicts a world in which sharing experiences and details on social media has become central to reputation and social participation. Members of this society offer up vast amounts of information about their lives, which they see as their duty to society, resulting in levels of surveillance comparable to those described in Orwell's 1984. Like the hedonistic members of society in Huxley's Brave New World, the people in Eggers' novel contentedly maintain the system that keeps them subjugated.

The system is very appealing at face-value: one that appeals to our innate desire to communicate with our social group and gain their approval. Charles Horton Cooley's 1902 theory of the 'looking-glass self' suggests that we develop a sense of self based on the perceptions of the people we interact with, beginning at an early age and continuing throughout life. Social media allows us to present a carefully curated image of ourselves to the world, through what we create, what media we share and who we associate ourselves with, and to gain instant feedback from a much wider social group.

Increasing use of social media has recently been linked with a steep rise in narcissistic behaviour and desire for social approval. However, social media cannot be blamed entirely for triggering these traits in the population. For centuries, humans have created self portraits to share with peers, craving their approval. Social media and the smart phone have simply made this process a lot more accessible.

The feedback from peers on social media is driven by two factors that arguably make it extremely compelling and addictive: The fact that feedback is often available immediately; and that the value of the communication is so easily quantified, by the number of shares, likes, retweets, etc. Social media provides an outlet for exercising an inherent desire to seek social approval: the 'looking-glass' that is always available and provides instant gratification with its responses.

Eggers' novel offers a parody of this. In the society of The Circle, social approval is gained by participation on social media, quantified by the individual's 'Participation Rank.' Commonly referred to as 'Popularity rank' (The Circle, p 100), this figure determines rank and supposedly reflects contribution to society. That number is subject to rapid change, depending on the individual's level of participation on social media. As Mae's colleague stresses, this rank is 'as important' as work duties, an assertion which prompts great anxiety. This is presented as a solution to maintaining a healthy 'work-life balance', but it becomes toxic when the 'life' side of the scales requires as much, if not more, effort than work.

Very little of the participation that is praised so highly seems to be at all meaningful. The act of participating counts more than the quality of the contribution, and so conversation on The Circle's social media network spirals rapidly onwards, spurred on by connections made by its participants, like a frantic game of word association. (The Circle, p 103) This conversation feels a little like following a trail of links on the internet, offering endless possibilities, routes, but ultimately aimless without exercising sufficient self-discipline. The participants seem unable to focus on a single task, preferring a multi-tasking approach that appears fruitful, but in reality is likely to be highly unproductive. Research from Stanford University in 2009 found that 'heavy media multi taskers' were less capable of paying attention, control memory or switch efficiently between tasks than those who prefer to complete one task at a time. Those of us who regularly flit between tasks across various media, for example, texting or using social media while completing a task that requires sustained concentration, are harming are ability to stay focused.

The expectation for Mae to maintain communication across three screens while at work appears as a clear sign that The Circle doesn't expect their employees to ever concentrate fully on a single task. All workers at The Circle are subject to the whims of technology, plagued by constant distraction, gratified by instant and shallow communication, conditioned to share without consideration for privacy or security. When The Circle feels the need to silence dissenters, they make use of private information, previously so willingly offered by these members of society.

When criticised of deliberately avoiding participation, Mae cites her father's illness, which has meant she was not 'present' over the time period (The Circle, p 182). The Circle's HR representatives focus on this term, suggesting that she was instead 'absent'. They imply her presence in the community, her existence, is dependent on her ability to document these experiences on social media. This seems intended to prompt social anxiety, a feeling summed up by a phrase added to the Oxford English Dictionary in 2013, FOMO or 'Fear of missing out'. This is a phrase unique to modern life, where a sense that others may be having more fun prompts us to repeatedly check social media. A symptom of low self esteem, the situation is rarely improved by checking social media, where 'Photoshopped' and curated posts from peers, celebrities and Instagram stars can leave us feeling that our lives are significantly less colourful and luxurious.

Driven by a desire to please and be recognised by her work colleagues, Mae offers her full attention towards increasing her 'Participation rank'. Within a short space of time, with concerted effort, she is able to rise thousands of places in the ranks of society, to reach the top two thousand contributors. This implies that social mobility is encouraged in The Circle and accessible to those who are willing to put in the effort. With this rise in rank comes increased recognition from peers and rewards from the company. Mae can be said to have reached the circle of top influencers, whose success is quantified by their Participation rank.

Comparison can be made with the rise of beauty bloggers and Instagram stars, who, blessed with beauty, charisma and a friend with a camera, have succeeded in gaining large numbers of loyal followers. These entrepreneurial young people have overturned the traditional hierarchy of power in the beauty industry, a fact illustrated by Vogue's surprisingly vitriolic reaction against fashion bloggers and digital influencers early this year.

Similarly, Kim Kardashian West, flashing her expensive jewellery in frequent social media posts, may have found it easier to gain social media attention because of her wealth and her relationship with another celebrity. However, it is her prolific use of social media, along with her willingness to share the private details of her life, which ensures she maintains social media popularity.

The Circle's motto 'Secrets are lies, Sharing is caring, Privacy is theft' provides a moral drive to this social media-based culture, by implying that communicating personal experiences is beneficial to the community as a whole. Not sharing experiences, enjoyable, emotional or otherwise, is considered selfish. Citizens in The Circle have a duty to share images, videos and personal accounts to ensure that others benefit from their experience. When going through a difficult time with health, or emotional issues, the experience should be shared to help someone dealing with the same problem. When experiencing an enjoyable, inspiring or rare event, that experience should be documented and shared, so that others who are not able to experience the same event can witness it through the account.

"When you deprive your friends... of experiences like I had, you're basically stealing from them. You're depriving them of something they have a right to. Knowledge is a basic human right. Equal access to all possible human experience is a basic human right." (The Circle, p 301) Members of the society are forced into revealing private details about themselves and their lifestyles, trapped by a sense of guilt, and a feeling that it's their duty to society.

Lifestyle bloggers and vloggers, by sharing their experiences on social media, are offering a similar service to their followers. They can provide support and understanding to followers who are going through a difficult, but comparable experience, or they can offer audiences a glimpse of an ideal lifestyle, a way of life to aspire to. With meticulous planning and editing, lifestyle bloggers invite audiences to share in their lifestyle and experiences for the duration of the blog/vlog. Especially in the case of idealised lifestyle blogs, myriad in their variety, the lifestyles depicted in these blogs rarely reflect the real lives of the subjects in the photos. Consumers do not want that illusion to be shattered, and the fairytale is made richer with detail and regular instalments.

The likes of Kim Kardashian West have a team on hand to ensure photo opportunities, and subsequent social media posts, are frequent, and that Kim is not inhibited by her duty to child care, travel and other inconveniences. Her life is presented as a series of parties, unblemished selfies and cuddles with her pristinely-dressed children. We are not privvy to the rush and preparation between each snap. Though in the wake of last week's trauma, her usually prolific Twitter feed has fallen silent. At least, she's likely to be shaken after a serious breach of her security and a potential threat to her life. She may also be contemplating the cost of her unreserved and precipitous use of social media.

Like the members of society in The Circle, social media stars seem to be turning upon themselves the same surveillance camera we've come to fear from the dystopian futures depicted in the likes of Orwell's 1984 and Huxley's Brave New World. The Kardashians in particular has turned public scrutiny of her life and her fame into a multi-million dollar business, built on an attitude of sharing, and baring, all. Yet to gain the social approval, and subsequent fame and fortune, that comes with this lifestyle, the Kardashians have sacrificed their privacy and their security. Surely this should be a warning to us all.

A film adaptation of Eggers' novel is in production, with Emma Watson, Tom Hanks and Karen Gillan announced as holding leading roles, due for release next April.

Listing Image: The Daily Beast


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