Note – I wrote the following essay for a WR 122 class and I decided to share it here. My thoughts on The Circle are complicated, as I feel it is a good book, but a terrible movie. Which bring up a good point about the story in general and how social media is manipulated to create narratives and memes of groups of people. That being said, it’s a good read. I would advise against watching the movie, but if you do make sure you’ve finished the book first.
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The Circle by Dave Eggers is a multifaceted project, starting as a novel and adapted into a movie with a juggernaut cast. While the movie does not do the book justice, the project is fascinating in its scope and thought-provoking in its topic: the effects of social media on human psychology. This essay will examine The Circle as a novel, an idea, and subsequent movie, which are all riddled with contradictions between each other culturally and stylistically. Both the book and the movie spin the story to convince the audience that social media is inherently bad. However, their differences reveal an alternative conclusion: it’s not social media that is inherently bad, but aspects of humanity itself (specifically, a society’s perceived and/or self-appointed leaders and puppeteers).
The Circle follows the life of Mae Holland (played by Emma Watson in the movie) and her rise and ultimate “take over” of the Circle, a company that grew to such a massive scale that it gained dominance over competitive companies as well as governments. Dave Eggers does an excellent job of creating doubt and intrigue with a variety of characters and situations throughout the book. The Circle has clear parallels to social media and information conglomerates in the real world, such as Facebook and Google. Eggers does seem to lead readers toward the conclusion that such companies are a threat to human freedom. However, the plot is nuanced and the ending is a little vague, allowing readers to form their own opinions. The movie has a similarly open-ended finish, but without the moral complexities of the book.
One of the most noticeable contradictions between the book and the movie is the portrayal of certain characters. While the writer of this essay is a person of color, and appreciates people of color being represented in film, the book makes no reference to the race of any characters. As a matter of fact, the simple storyline implies that all the characters are of the same race (likely White). When race is explicitly mentioned, the core characters are clearly identified as Caucasian. An example of this is when Annie, after discovering that her family had owned slaves in England and America, then fires her Black assistant. The sheer guilt, embarrassment and cowardice that she faces because of her ancestry puts her into a coma. This piece of the plot is completely avoided in the movie. No mention is made of Annie’s dark family history, and she is even identified as Scottish for no clear reason. The movie seems to make a concerted effort to display diversity, even when it doesn’t fit the narrative.
The movie’s portrayal of Ty (the founder of the Circle) is another puzzling choice. In the book, Ty is prohibited from leaving the Circle campus, basically making him a slave to his own creation and monopolizing unfairly on his accomplishments. The movie’s choice to then portray this character as a Black man highlights the manipulative strategies of people in power in the real world. According to the website Statista, in 2020 only 3.9% of Facebook employees were of African descent (1). Therefore, to make a Black man the founder of a Facebook-like company was clearly a choice made for optics (and potentially as a sick joke) and not representative of reality at all.
These differences between the book and the movie were no accident – in fact, these choices may have been the reason for the film’s box office success (Nash Information Services 1). The movie’s producers likely made these changes because they wanted the movie to be a hit with its real-world audience. By leaving out the messier aspects of the book, the movie’s storyline becomes easier for people to digest. The movie’s producers omitted the book’s acknowledgement that the Circle could help expose deeply rooted racist structures of power. The book may be fiction, but its concepts are very real. There are countless examples of minorities using social media to their advantage.
The writer of this essay has used social media in a positive way, most notably earning him a Google News Initiative internship grant in 2020 (Christian 1). This award was largely due to his social media presence in the form of a blog called The Black American Spring. The Black American Spring utilizes social media algorithms and paid advertising to direct traffic to the website, where voices of perceivably marginalized communities can display and celebrate their art and ideas without being edited. The Black American Spring engages with readers and content creators around the world and has found many article leads from social media posts. Without social media and its ability to reach millions of people around the world, many journalists wouldn’t have a job.
Even in academic journalism textbooks, social media is identified as an essential tool. According to Inside Reporting: A Practical Guide to the Craft of Journalism, there are seven reasons to use social media as a journalist. Social media is where the audience is, it’s easy to use, it directs traffic back to one’s website, it extends the shelf life of articles, it helps to engage with readers, it improves research and reporting, and thus improves writing overall (Harrower 162). Editors and content creators rely on social media to get images, articles, and videos in front of millions of people. While publishers do often pay to “boost” their articles, this is returned to them via advertising revenue generated on their websites. Facebook alone has 483 million daily users according to Inside Reporting (Harrower 162).
In popular culture, one of the most well-known examples of success via social media is the Kardashian family. It is hard to imagine the Kardashian family without their fame, money, and influence. At times controversial, the Kardashian family capitalized on their fame to make fortunes the size of small countries from their social media presence and fashion empire. Many people see their female-dominated success as a symptom of hyper-sexuality and vanity; however, the Kardashian women are simply taking advantage of something that men in power have been exploiting since the dawn of time: the power of sex. Social media (actually, all media) operates under the assumption that “any publicity is good publicity.” The financial gain from the mix of fandom and hatred helped their Armenian family become billionaires less than 100 years after a genocide against their people (Corinthios 1).
Another hugely successful social media business is Humans of New York, which began as a photography project in New York City. In 2010 photographer Brandon Stanton set a goal of taking photos of 10,000 New Yorkers and sharing their stories on various social media platforms. Because of the popularity of this project Stanton has been able to travel and apply this concept to other cities around the world, all the while donating funds and assisting in different fundraising opportunities for underprivileged communities and people in need (Stanton 3).
There is no doubt that social media can be used to cause immeasurable pain, but not everyone using social media has this intent. Social media is a product of its time. It is a part of humanity’s growth and ultimately, a testament to our collective power and creativity. In 2021, Mother Jones released an article titled “Stop the Freakout Over Kids’ Screen Time: Ignore the elitist recommendations and shaky science. Everything’s A-okay.” The article describes research by prominent psychologists and neuroscientists that shows that even extensive screen time doesn’t change humans biologically. Increasing use of the internet and social media is not rotting people’s brains like some have liked to claim (Butler 1).
A huge part of progressing as a society into a brighter future will be the ability to hold people accountable for their actions instead of blaming social media for society’s ills. The founding fathers of the United States were enslaving humans while simultaneously breeding them like cattle, often selling and enslaving their own children. The harsh reality of this country’s past has been downplayed by history books. Had social media been present during those times, the horrors would not have been as easily forgotten.
The differences in plot and tone between Dave Eggers’ The Circle and the resulting mainstream movie reveal the motivations and fears of the movie’s producers. The movie’s diverse cast is not progressive, but regressive, as it helps to avoid the tough topics of racial inequality and injustice that are explored in the book. Even while creating a film that criticizes the power of social media and surveillance, the producers were making choices that would ensure popularity within a similarly media-dominated world. In reality, social media can be used as a powerful tool to hold people accountable. To claim that social media is bad across-the-board is an attempt to limit humanity’s growth and to censor opinions that threaten the status quo (opinions that are often popular among more diverse populations).
Butler, Kiera. “Stop the Freakout Over Kids’ Screen Time: Ignore the elitist recommendations
and shaky science. Everything’s A-okay.” Mother Jones,
The Circle. Directed by James Ponsoldt, performances by Emma Watson, Tom Hanks, John
Boyega, Karen Gillan, Patton Oswalt, and Bill Paxton, STXfilms and EuropaCorp, 2017.
Christian, Kevin. “Men of color share stories of persistence, success.” Community College Daily,
Corinthios, Aurelie. “Kim Kardashian Marks 105th Anniversary of the Armenian Genocide
After U.S. Recognizes Massacre.” People, http://www.people.com/tv/kim-kardashian-marks-
Eggers, Dave. The Circle. New York, Vintage Book, a division of Random House, 2014.
Harrower, Tim. Inside Reporting: A Practical Guide to the Craft of Journalism. New York,
Linktree. 9 Aug. 2020, linktr.ee/chandlorglenn. Accessed 28 July 2021.
Nash Information Services. “The Circle (2017).” The Numbers, https://www.the-
Stanton, Brandon. Humans of New York, St. Martin’s Press, 2013.
Statista Research Department. “Facebook: U.S. corporate demography 2014-2020, by ethnicity.”
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