The circle – book review and thoughts on privacy and transparency

One of my students was reading this book by Dave Eggers, and I decided to read it too so that we could discuss it in class. I don’t always do this, but I thought the book looked interesting and I was looking for something new to read. Fortunately the library had a copy, and it didn’t take me long – I was done in a couple of days!

Mae Holland has a boring job until one day a college friend helps her to get a job at the Circle, the most influential technology company in the world. Exciting projects, recognition, rewards and opportunities are waiting for her, but even on the first day, things aren’t quite right or what they seem. As Mae becomes more and more involved, she looses touch with her old life and even though her family is proud of her at first, her new life and career leaves no room for her relationships, made worse by the fact that the company provides help for her family that Mae would never have been able to give on her own.

The new projects, whilst exciting, become increasingly intrusive and sinister. Slowly the company swallows up competitors and silences anyone who would stand against it.

I won’t spoil the ending for you, but it wasn’t the ending I wanted. Still, it was believable and I suppose these dystopian novels never end well!

There is a film too with Emma Watson, but I haven’t seen it so can’t comment. I only read the book – the original was in English, but I read the German version.

Overall I think the book explores some interesting topics such as the potential dangers of a world in which one company has the power to affect every area of life, what happens when people are completely “transparent” and there is no privacy, and what happens if an idea is taken further than it was ever intended to go.

There are some interesting characters, even though I felt the main protagonist was a bit of an idiot at times! I think we can see clearly how she was brainwashed, but it would have been good if the author had developed the sense of being torn between two completely different points of view a bit more. Did she really never lie awake at night questioning some of the things she was told?

I can believe that some people are so taken in that they’ll believe anything once the organisation has got its claws in, but it would maybe have been good to have some other figures to put the alternative point of view. We did have her ex, who made a good case, but maybe one of the other politicians could have made a stand too about why it’s not good to have every single meeting or discussion in the public domain. Why were there no legal challenges about secret cameras being installed everywhere, including in people’s homes? It felt for me as though some corners were cut here, even if the overall end result would have been the same. At some points, the narrative moved too fast, and the lack of resistance made it less believable for me.

It certainly opens up the discussion around privacy, who really owns your data, surveillance, the right to be forgotten, and how much of ourselves we should be willing to share.

The problem I have though, is that often people are unwilling to accept responsibility for their own part in the problem. Ok, if large companies are misusing data, selling data unlawfully, not adequately protecting data from theft or abuse by third parties, they should be called to account for it.

But if you have a public profile and publish your full home address on it, and I have seen someone doing that, then I hope nothing happens to you. But if you then post on that public profile that you’re going on holiday for two weeks, you’re not doing yourself any favours.

The bloggers that I follow don’t do this, and people have different thresholds for how much information is too much information, but I’ve seen things that people post on social media about their children that have made me cringe –things that most people would only want members of the family or close friends to know – not any random that they may have added on Facebook. Private things, that, if the kid found out about it in ten or so years, could leave them feeling unduly exposed or betrayed. I don’t mean general things about struggles they’ve had, but things that are intimate or deeply personal and their own story to tell if they want to. Blogging gives a certain extra layer of anonymity that social media sites don’t, particularly if you’re operating under your own name.

If people go to random websites and give details of their home address, phone number, date of birth, or anything else for that matter – without checking out the site first – of course it’s wrong that the sites exist, but would you give all this information to a random person on the street?

If people sign into all kinds of apps and games with their Facebook account, without checking out what other permissions they are agreeing to – of course it’s not ok if that data is then used in some illegal or morally dubious way, but some responsibility has to lie with the person who clicked the “ok” button, or just used their Facebook login because it was easier.

So yes – large companies need to be held to account, but on a smaller scale, we all have a role to play too. We’re not just mindless passive players, being swept along with the current – or if we are, we shouldn’t be.

When I was taking part in a feedback exercise for my university, I was amazed at a section of the group that was so anti social media because it was so scary and dangerous. I don’t see that in my day-to-day life. I work online and my friends generally don’t feel that way either. Some concerns may be valid, and I wouldn’t just dismiss all of them, but writing it off completely seems like saying “cars are dangerous because you could get run over by them” Let’s not educate people about safe driving. Let’s just ban them all together.”

The danger I see with books like this is that half the population will go running scared and feel vindicated because this is where we’ll all end up you know when the big tech companies take over every part of our lives, and the rest think it’s exaggerated and will never happen. The truth is probably somewhere in the middle.

Checks and balances should be in place. The law needs to keep up with the advancements in technology as some things are only not illegal because the current legislation hasn’t caught up with what’s now technically possible (for example, existing harassment legislation had to be amended to specifically address stalking, which includes activities associated with cyberstalking, as these became more prevalent..)

But on the other hand, dumping vast amounts of previously classified information online without considering possible consequences, or saying “I have nothing to hide so I don’t care what’s known about me” are both somewhat naïve.

It’s like so many things – balance is important. A couple of the early ideas in the Circle had potential to be useful, but when taken too far, they weren’t.

I think some things are close enough to real life to make you smile as you relate to something, like going through 101 reasons someone may not have responded to you when the real reason was just that they hadn’t been glued to their phone and hadn’t seen your message or post. Or, even though we don’t have a bunch of screens on our desk for every single app, the juggling act you do when there are multiple ways for people to keep in touch with you and you have to keep on top of all of them. (Yes, message me on WhatsApp and I still may forget to reply!)

Mae comes across as very naïve and gullible, and she never questions or says “no”. Maybe that’s the path we take when our digital footprint becomes more important than anything else, but real life is rarely so black and white. Some parts of the novel reminded me of my teacher in year 5 “you’ve got some good ideas Kirsty, but this is just the skeleton. His bones are fine, but now put some meat on him!”

Maybe it was meant to be more of an easy read, but I was left wanting to unpack the issues a bit more, or to get a bit deeper into some of the characters which felt a bit superficial.

Have you read this book or seen the film? What did you think?

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Don’t be annoying – 15 things that I wish people would stop doing on social media

Some of these things are just annoying. Some are more to do with accessibility. But I thought I’d share this list here, partly to have a little rant about the state of the internet, but partly to point out why some of these things don’t work, or how they make life harder for anyone with a visual impairment.

I also asked in my Facebook group for English learners what things people there wished people would stop doing on social media, and I’ll share those answers too.

If you’ve got anything to add to the list – anything people do on any social media platform that really winds you up or that you think is completely pointless or unhelpful, please add it in the comments!

1. #Every #single #word #is #a #hashtag

#This #is #ineffective! When was the last time you did a search on the word “is”? I get the idea of adding some relevant hashtags to the end of a post on sites where hashtags are used, but you can have too much of a good thing and it definitely shouldn’t be every word in a sentence because it really doesn’t add value.

2. Statuses that don’t tell you anything, but are clearly looking for attention

Like the Facebook equivalent of clickbait. “Now I know who my real friends are”, or “Some people do my head in” or “all men are the same” (I want to be gender neutral, but on the whole I haven’t seen this kind of stuff posted about women!)

things that make people ask what’s wrong, either because they genuinely care, or for fear of not knowing the latest Facebook gossip. I do have a heart. I can understand if people really need help with something that’s a big deal to them, or a shoulder to cry on at a difficult time, but if you leave it a few minutes until someone’s curiosity gets the better of them, (“you ok hun?” or “oh no we still love you, what’s wrong?”), you find out that it was really just another first world problem, Or the latest friendship drama that most people don’t care about. It gets old when the same people do it all the time. Scroll on by!

3. Answering with pictures

This isn’t bad practice as such, but it’s a pain when you’re blind and can’t see what the pictures are. It seems to be more of a thing on Twitter, but I see it coming into Facebook groups too. I’m not asking the world to stop doing it, but please don’t do it if you’re answering me! You’re replying in a language that I don’t speak. My software can interpret emojis, but not pictures.

4. Retweeting about 20 tweets from another account

We get the idea after the first couple. If we really care, we can follow that other account. We don’t need you to retweet its entire feed!

5. Aggressively scheduled tweets

Like your latest blog post … every single hour. I for one am glad that Twitter is clamping down on this. I know some people have been affected who weren’t abusing it, but seriously the same old stuff being automated and churned out repetitively is too much. If your last 10 tweets are exactly the same, I’m probably talking to you!

6. People thinking all Facebook group admins are their new best friend, or girlfriend material

It doesn’t happen much now, but in another group that I co-moderated, I’d barely approved a request to join when the friend request appeared and someone started trying to chat me up. Really not cool. In fact randomly hitting on people using social media is generally not cool! Ever!

7. People tagging everyone they know so that more people will see the post

I’m not talking about my real friends tagging me, either in posts or when they see something I might like. This makes me happy, because it showed that that person was thinking of me.

I’m talking about the people who tag 50 of their contacts, just so more people see their newest blog post, event, or what they did today. I don’t need that on my feed and it feels like you’re using me so that you can benefit from my network.

8. Hijacking of hashtags just because they’re trending

I think the worst example of this that I saw was a Turkish hashtag about some people who had died, and some insensitive person decided it would be a good idea to use it in their post selling some random thing. If you don’t know what a hashtag means, just don’t use it.

Then there are the more intentional misuses of hashtags, such as people using the #bloggerswanted hashtags to promote their latest post. These tags were set up for brands or journalists to post requests to speak to bloggers, not to be hijacked by bloggers who can’t be bothered to publicise their posts more creatively.

9. Automatic direct messages on Twitter

Do you know anyone who actually likes receiving them? Especially when they follow the format of “thanks for following me. Now please buy my book, like my Instagram, follow me on Twitter, sign up to my newsletter, and send me chocolate!” Ok nobody has ever asked me to send them chocolate, but getting an automatic list of demands just because I followed someone doesn’t make me want to interact with them!

10. Follow for follow

The message still hasn’t got through that it’s a bad idea. If I get 1000 new followers to my Facebook page through this practice, and they never interact with my page, my engagement rate actually goes down, because a lower percentage of my followers cares what I’m posting. Facebook sees this as my content becoming less relevant, so it will be shown to less people. Follow for follow is bad news!

11. People sharing before they check the facts

Often this is done with the best intentions, but people sharing warnings that are at best hoaxes, and at worst helping out the criminals by redirecting people to malicious sites. If something looks too good to be true, it probably is. If you see a terrible story that isn’t being reported on any credible sites, it’s probably just a terrible story. There are whole sites dedicated to debunking myths and hoaxes, so take the time to google before whipping up your friends into a Facebook frenzy!

12. Pictures of text inviting interaction in groups

Again this is a problem for me as a visually impaired person. If people want to post memes or other pictures of text on their own wall, it’s their choice. I’ll scroll past because I have no idea what it says, but I don’t expect people’s private walls to be made accessible on my account. Having said that, I am always happy when people do take the time to comment on their images, because then I know what they are sharing. The Facebook AI is getting better at identifying dogs, cats, people and food, but there’s still some way to go. It thought our skip of building waste was food.

But the problem I have is in public groups, where people post a picture of text on a thread that is inviting people to post something. I can maybe work out the rules from the other responses, but this takes time – time that other members of the group don’t need to invest. Groups for bloggers and small business owners tend to be the worst offenders.

13. People not listening

People will have different opinions. That’s life. But if you’re going to get into a discussion, at least have the courtesy to listen to the other person as well as expecting them to listen to you. I went into this in more depth in my 20 things that you shouldn’t do to win an argument post.

14. Blog giveaways with conditions on other platforms

All people can’t be on all platforms. Some people don’t want to be on some platforms. If you’re doing a blog giveaway, can you not at least make the main entry something to do with your actual blog? Hard as it is to believe, there are some people who don’t like Instagram, but they might still be loyal readers of your blog or followers of your YouTube channel!

15. People from groups trying to sell stuff via private messages

I run my own business. I am in some Facebook groups for business owners. That doesn’t mean I welcome spam from anyone else in that group who wants to try the Facebook equivalent of cold-calling. You will be blocked!

Points from my learners of English group

Some other things came up when I asked about this – things that I hadn’t thought of. My group members wanted people to:

Stop unfriending people with whom you’ve been friends for a long time, and not explaining why you unfriended them;
Stop posting hate speech and false news;
Stop unfriending people because they have different opinions;
Stop trying to shout everyone down when you have no idea what you’re talking about. The person who shouts the loudest isn’t necessarily right.

So what about you? What would you add to this list? How can we make the internet a better place for everyone?

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