Mae Holland thinks she has won the lottery when a college friend helps get her a job at a powerful internet/technology company called The Circle. The Circle was started on the premise that everyone needs to log in with their true identity, thereby making people more accountable online and eliminating trolls and malicious comments made hiding behind a monitor. Mae starts in customer service but quickly finds herself gaining some footing to move up in the company. It seems that she has found her way into a utopia of a company, where social events are just as important as business meetings. Ideas and technology quickly come to life and Mae soon finds herself part of the mix as dire questions start popping up about democracy and privacy, transparency and knowledge.
I had first learned about this book while at this year’s Bookstravaganza event and had been enticed by the notion that this will hit home to those who are very into social media. The Circle reads like a cautionary tale for everyone in this digital age with powerful tech companies, like Facebook, becoming so infiltrated into our every day lives. It reads like a hypothetical analysis of an extreme case of what would happen when people become so immersed in the virtual world that they don’t know how to act or react when they’re in the real world.
The story is told through the eyes of Mae, a young ambitious woman, who – for me – was misguided in her strengths. Her relationships and dynamics between many of the characters didn’t make sense to me. It’s said that she’s close friends with the woman who got her the job there and yet their rapport was extremely bizarre and nonsensical to me. I don’t know if their dynamic was intentional or if that’s what the author thinks female friendships are like. Mae’s poor choices throughout the book was also irksome to me. She was so blinded by ambition and almost brainwashed to an extent that it was clouding her judgement on how to deal with loved ones. In all her power and strength that she was trying to assert, she came off as even weaker than when she first started at the company. I also found the vocabulary that was used for the sporadic intimate moments throughout the book to be awkward, at one point even making me cringe at the choice of words. I don’t know what it was per se, whether it was a lack of finesse or way too blunt and clinical but the handful of moments just felt jarring and gratuitously added.
The Circle is a continuous account of Mae’s life at the company with no chapter breaks. Broken out into three “books”, the nearly-500 page tome seems daunting to tackle but was actually a fairly fast read. While some moments I felt could have been condensed or cut out, it is quite the page turner at times. I also felt this to be a great discussion topic, to reassess how our lives have become so linked online where so many things can easily be found out about each other in moments. It shows an interesting notion of a false sense of familiarity and accomplishment, where virtual numbers and rankings become a competitive arena and people you briefly interact with online suddenly can feel overly comfortable and pushy as they demand more of your time and attention.
I feel you can hear the voice of the author in some of the characters with passionate opinions about the state of technology, and there are some great arguments for both sides of the case. What could start as great intentions can very quickly spiral out of control, and then where does it stop? Is all-seeing knowledge good or bad? Regardless of which side you’re on in this debate, it will definitely make you re-evaluate your online presence. I am known among my friends as one who is very much into social media but The Circle has definitely given me pause. I didn’t think I would feel this way until I found myself frustrated and angry at some of Mae’s life choices. A very interesting and thought-provoking read, but read with caution if you don’t want to see your online presence differently.