Eggers, Franzen Lash Out at Social Media
David Eggers and Jonathan Franzen, two of the literary set’s anointed cleverboys, are sharing their feelings about social media -- and they are not happy about it, not one bit.
Eggers airs his concerns about social media in a new book, “The Circle,” which follows an ambitious young woman, Mae Holland, who is starting her new job at a successful technology firm, the Circle. I haven’t read the book, but according to reviewers the Circle is basically a combination of Facebook, Google, Twitter, and perhaps some yet-to-be-founded companies. The Circle has over a billion users, dominates search, and swathes its employees in an idyllic, Silicon Valley-like workplace, including free food and healthcare. So, no, Eggers isn’t being subtle here.
On the surface the Circle is an admirable, even idealistic company, committed to making the world better by encouraging people to share information about, well, everything, beginning with themselves. But before long this crosses over from cool to creepy, and finally ends up somewhere around positively totalitarian. Managers pressure employees to share (“zing”) more and more, in line with the company’s credo, until Holland spends her days responding to an unending stream of questions and marketing messages, delivered to a headset she wears everywhere, along with a camera and a bracelet that monitors her biological functions.
The word many reviewers reach for in describing "The Circle" is “Orwellian,” and there certainly seem to be enough Orwellian catchphrases, beginning with the company’s motto, “All That Happens Must Be Known.” Also: “If you care about people, you share what you know with them,” “Secrets Are Lies,” and “Privacy Is Theft.”
Franzen’s assault is more direct, as he shared his distaste for social media in an interview on BBC Radio. According to Franzen, publishers now tell aspiring writers “I won't even look at your manuscript if you don't have 250 followers on Twitter,” forcing them to devote time and energy to self-promotion that would be better spent perfecting their craft.
This comes on the heels of Franzen’s critique of social media in The Guardian in September: “What happens to the people who became writers because yakking and tweeting and bragging felt to them like intolerably shallow forms of social engagement? What happens to the people who want to communicate in depth, individual to individual, in the quiet and permanence of the printed word, and who were shaped by their love of writers who wrote when publication still assured some kind of quality control and literary reputations were more than a matter of self-promotional decibel levels?”
In his interview Franzen elaborated: “This crowd-sourcing model, everything shared, communal, it doesn't really work, not to pay freelance writers; and most important, the whole definition of literature is that people go off by themselves, develop a distinctive voice. It's not a communal enterprise.”