Dave Eggers, The Circle, and Online Anonymity

One of my favorite things is when my reading life converges with something that is going on in real life. I recently read Dave Eggers’s latest book and have found myself stumbling across the themes that run through The Circle all over the internet and my thoughts.

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First, a bit on the book itself. The Circle is the tale of Mae Holland, hired to work for The Circle, the world’s most powerful internet company—think Google + Facebook + Twitter and then some. The Circle links email, social media, banking, buying, etc. with users’ real identities, resulting in one online identity and a new era of transparency online. The company sits on a sprawling campus in California (of course it does), and Mae is completely enchanted and awed by her new employer. As Mae’s role in the company grows more and more public, and her life outside the company grows more and more distant, Mae starts to wonder just what might be going on behind the glowing public facade of The Circle.

The Circle has gotten some criticism by readers for being a not-so-subtle indictment of Silicon Valley and the tech world, and I’ll admit that Eggers does beat you over the head a bit with the moral of the story. But I found myself devouring this book, I think because it in some ways seems crazy but in many ways seems like not too far of a stretch from our current online lives. The Circle insinuates itself into every part of peoples’ lives in a benevolent-seeming way, making their lives easier and connecting people more than ever before, while the bigwigs in the background gain more and more power.

One thing about The Circle that really struck a chord with me though is the idea of the end of online anonymity. Ty, the founder of The Circle, created TruYu—”one account, one identity, one password, one payment system, per person.”

To use any of The Circle’s tools, and they were the best tools, the most dominant and ubiquitous and free, you had to do so as yourself, as your actual self, as your TruYu. The era of false identities, identity theft, multiple user names, complicated passwords and payment systems was over. Anytime you wanted to see anything, use anything, comment on anything or buy anything, it was one button, one account, everything tied together and trackable and simple, all of it operable via mobile or laptop, tablet or retinal. Once you had a single account, it carried you through every corner of the web, every portal, every pay site, everything you wanted to do.

TruYu changed the internet, in toto, within a year. Though some sites were resistant at first, and free-internet advocates shouted about the right to be anonymous online, the TruYu wave was tidal and crushed all meaningful opposition. It started with the commerce sites. Why would any non-porn site want anonymous users when they could know exactly who had come through the door? Overnight, all comment boards became civil, all posters held accountable. The trolls, who had more or less overtaken the internet, were driven back into the darkness. (p. 21-22, U.S. hardcover edition)

Adam Goldenberg, a close friend of mine from law school, wrote an interesting piece on some of the problems with online anonymity in the wake of an incident in Canada about a month ago, in which the husband of a former Ontario deputy premier went missing, and was later found dead. In light of the news, the trolls came out to play on Twitter, attacking the politician and his family for his homosexuality. My friend Adam took to Twitter, asking them to identify themselves publicly rather than hiding behind anonymous Twitter accounts, and he was promptly attacked, called a fascist, and compared to both former Senator Joseph McCarthy and the Gestapo. Adam puts it quite well in his piece I think: “On the internet, anonymity is the last refuge of cowards.”

This issue also arises particularly in the context of harassment and violence against women. There have been countless pieces all over the internet about how the internet is not a welcoming place for women. Women receive death threats and rape threats, in addition to all kinds of lewd messages and unwanted advances, every time they log on or speak their mind, whether they’re talking about feminism and women’s equality, why the UK should put Jane Austen on a banknote, or even just the latest Batman movie. One woman even has a running Page o’ Hate cataloging threats she’s’ received online. Many women don’t feel they can go to the cops, or if they do then they aren’t taken seriously by the cops when it comes to this type of anonymous online harassment. While a Toronto man recently went to court accused of criminal harassment for messages he allegedly sent to women via Twitter, prosecutions of these types are rare. And while the problem is perhaps felt most acutely by women, some say that we seem to have entered The Age of the Twitter Death Threat, as online anonymity allows anyone to take to the internet and threaten anyway with no repercussions.

Which makes me wonder, is the idea behind TruYu and The Circle maybe a good idea after all? Would forcing people to post using their true identities make the internet a safer place for women and others who have been harassed online, whether because of race, sexual orientation, or no reason at all? The allure of TruYu becomes quite clear in this context.

On the other hand, online anonymity serves an important purpose. Organizations like the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) and the ACLU advocate for the protection of online anonymity, and the right to speak anonymously because the ability to speak anonymously also has important consequences for our society It can protect whistleblowers who speak out against companies and governments, human rights workers and protesters speaking out against repressive regimes, and victims of violence who attempt to start their lives anew. The Federalist Papers were originally written under a pseudonym, and the Supreme Court has recognized the right to anonymous speech in cases like McIntyre v. Ohio Elections Commission.

It’s easy to see the merits of both sides of the debate around online anonymity, but perhaps less easy to determine what the right answer ultimately is. I don’t know the answer. And neither does Dave Eggers. But I do think The Circle provides readers with an interesting framework within which to consider some of the consequences of both sides. And I would encourage you to read the book if you’re interested in the debate.

Happy reading,
J.Mart

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