In The Circle, Dave Eggers satirizes the cultures and values that have emerged in the age of the Internet. In particular, he criticizes the culture of social networking, in which the vast majority of personal interactions don’t occur face-to-face, and often occur between people who have never met in person. Written at a time when more and more people communicate predominately through social networking sites, The Circle shows some of the frightening moral and psychological implications of online life.
As Eggers sees it, there are many problems with the shallow and disposable human relationships that are mediated by social networking. Because it’s so easy to accumulate thousands, or even millions, of online friends, social networking encourages people to value their online friendships—taken together—more highly than their older, firmer friendships. Over the course of the novel, we see Mae becoming more loyal to her millions of Internet followers, or “watchers,” than to her longtime close friend Annie Allerton. Even though Mae has never met any of her watchers and she knows almost nothing about them, the aggregate weight of their friendship outweighs her feelings of closeness and intimacy with Annie. As a result, she increasingly neglects Annie and they drift apart.
Moreover, because social networking relationships are shallow, they train human beings to think of all relationships—virtual or face-to-face—in shallow, superficial terms. The Circle exposes the shallowness of interpersonal connection via the romance between Mae and Francis Garaventa. After one date with Francis, Mae senses that she’s halfway in love with him. Over the course of the novel, Mae learns astonishingly little about the man she claims to care for, and the book implies that this is due to the fact that social networking has trained her not to probe too deeply into her relationships.
Finally, social networking trains people to feel an irrational need for constant attention. By providing an endless stream of virtual friends, social networking enables people with Internet access to communicate with someone at literally any time. As a result, Mae and her friends cannot stand even the shortest moments of loneliness; when Mae is alone, for instance, she feels a deep “tear” in her soul, a sign of the feelings of alienation that social networking has created within her.
Some readers have attacked Eggers for being too hysterical in his denunciation of the Internet and social networking, but Eggers isn’t striving for social realism. Rather, his goal is to use satire and hyperbole to draw attention to the serious problems that social networking is creating in modern society.
Social Networking and the Internet ThemeTracker
Social Networking and the Internet Quotes in The Circle
Their first month living together Mae had broken her jaw one twilight, after fainting, flu-ridden and underfed, during finals. Annie had told her to stay in bed, but Mae had gone to the 7-Eleven for caffeine and woke up on the sidewalk, under a tree. Annie took her to the hospital, and waited as they wired her jaw, and then stayed with Mae, sleeping next to her, in a wooden chair, all night, and then at home, for days, had fed Mae through a straw. It was a fierce level of commitment and competence that Mae had never seen from someone her age or near her age, and Mae was thereafter loyal in a way she'd never known she could be.
The more she looked at it, the stranger it became. The artist had arranged it such that each of the Wise Men had placed a hand on another's shoulder. It made no sense and defied the way arms could bend or stretch.
"It's the worst story," Annie said. "His parents were such fuckups. I think there were like four or five kids in the family, and Francis was youngest or second-youngest, and anyway the dad was in jail, and the mom was on drugs, so the kids were sent all over the place. I think one went to his aunt and uncle, and his two sisters were sent to some foster home, and then they were abducted from there. I guess there was some doubt if they were, you know, given or sold to the murderers."
"The what?" Mae had gone limp.
"Oh god, they were raped and kept in closets and their bodies were dropped down some kind of abandoned missile silo. I mean, it was the worst story ever.”
"It's not that I'm not social. I'm social enough. But the tools you guys create actually manufacture unnaturally extreme social needs. No one needs the level of contact you're purveying. It improves nothing. It's not nourishing. It's like snack food. You know how they engineer this food? They scientifically determine precisely how much salt and fat they need to include to keep you eating. You're not hungry, you don't need the food, it does nothing for you, but you keep eating these empty calories. This is what you're pushing. Same thing. Endless empty calories, but the digital-social equivalent. And you calibrate it so it's equally addictive."
"'Were you here when that burned?" the man asked, pointing to a large uninhabited island in the middle of the bay. It rose, mute and black, behind them. Mae shook her head.
‘It burned for two days. We had just gotten here' At night, the heat—you could feel it even here. We swam every night in this godforsaken water, just to stay cool. We thought the world was ending."
"Okay. Can you drink this?" The doctor handed Mae the dense green liquid she'd been preparing. "It's a smoothie."
Mae drank it down. It was viscous and cold.
"Okay, you just ingested the sensor that will connect to your wrist monitor. It was in that glass." The doctor punched Mae's shoulder playfully. "I love doing that."
"You're enjoying this?" she asked.
"Mm-hm," he managed.
Mae thrilled at her power over him. Watching Francis, his hands on the bed, his penis straining against his pants, she thought of something she could say. It was corny, and she would never say it if she thought anyone would ever know she'd said it, but it made her smile, and she knew it would send Francis, this shy boy, over the edge.
"Was the information he presented incorrect? There were factual mistakes?"
"Well, it wasn't that. It was just . . . piecemeal. And maybe that made it seem incorrect. It was taking a few slivers of me and presenting that as the whole me—"
"It seemed incomplete." "Right."
"Mae, I'm very glad you put it that way. As you know, the Circle is itself trying to become complete. We're trying to close the circle at the Circle." He smiled at his own wordplay. "But you know the overall goals of completion, I assume."
Somewhere in the stampeding applause, Bailey managed to announce the capper to it all—that Mae, in the interest of sharing all she saw and could offer the world, would be going transparent immediately.
Later that day, a headache appeared—caused, she thought, by eating less chocolate than usual. She reached into her bag, where she kept a few
single-serving aspirin packets, but again, on her screen, she saw what everyone was seeing. She saw a hand searching her bag, clawing, and instantly she felt desperate and wretched, like some kind of pill-popping addict.
She did without.
She wanted to hear it again, so she said nothing. "Mae."
It was a young woman's voice, a young woman's voice that sounded bright and fierce and capable of anything.
It was a better, more indomitable version of herself. "Mae.”
She felt stronger every time she heard it.
Mae caught her breath. She knew this was a demonstration only, but the power felt real. And it felt right. Why wouldn't the wisdom of three hundred million Americans be taken into account when making a decision that affected them all? Mae paused, thinking, weighing the pros and cons. The Circlers in the room seemed to be taking the responsibility as seriously as Mae: How many lives would be saved by killing al-Hamed? It could be thousands, and the world would be rid of an evil man. The risk seemed worth it. She voted yes. The full tally arrived after one minute, eleven seconds: 71 percent of Circlers favored a drone strike.
Why were they sabotaging everything Mae was working for? But what was she working for, anyway, if 368 Circlers didn't approve of her? Three hundred and sixty-eight people who apparently actively hated her, enough to push a button at her—to send their loathing directly to her, knowing she would know, immediately, their sentiments.
He couldn't get enough of the shark, its anxious circling.
"Until next time," Stenton said finally. He nodded to Mae, and then to her watchers, who were now one hundred million, many of them terrified, many more in awe and wanting more of the same.
"But there are a thousand protections to prevent all of this. It's just not possible. I mean, governments will make sure—"
"Governments who are transparent? Legislators who owe their reputations to the Circle? Who could be ruined the moment they speak out? What do you think happened to Williamson? Remember her? She threatens the Circle monopoly and, surprise, the feds find incriminating stuff on her computer. You think that's a coincidence? That's about the hundredth person Stenton's done that to. Mae, once the Circle's complete, that's it. And you helped complete it. This democracy thing, or Demoxie, whatever it is, good god. Under the guise of having every voice heard, you create mob rule, a filterless society where secrets are crimes."
What was going on in that head of hers? It was exasperating, really, Mae thought, not knowing. It was an affront, a deprivation, to herself and to the world. She would bring this up with Stenton and Bailey, with the Gang of 40, at the earliest opportunity. They needed to talk about Annie, the thoughts she was thinking. Why shouldn't they know them? The world deserved nothing less and would not wait.