The Circle and today: Online Social Justice

Note: This post may contain spoilers for the entirety of Dave Eggers’ The Circle.

Note #2: This is not my blog post for the second blog assignment. I will be making that post later this week. This is just a topic I wanted more of an opportunity to explore.


Social justice themes pop up throughout The Circle by Dave Eggers. From the moment Mae starts looking through her online profile, she is bombarded with a cascade of petitions for causes and invitations to charity fundraising events. Benevolence quickly becomes part of the online persona that she creates. She appreciates the vaguely social justice themed ideas at the “plankton” session she attends, appreciates the diversity of the newbies she stands up with on her first day, and at one point sends out a series of zings about a particular Hitchcock movie’s unfair portrayal of the LGBT community.

Sounds pretty good, right?

Raising money and awareness for charity is pretty much a universally good thing. But in both our world and the world of The Circle, it’s a little more complicated.

At one point, Mae becomes excited that a charity event she attends is able to raise over two million “smiles” for a Pakistani school. Our first reaction as readers is “What? That means nothing.” And it’s true.

Sound familiar?

I’ve been running in online social justice circles, mostly on tumblr, for years. Throughout that time, the prevailing attitude has been that likes and hashtags and reblogging or “signal boosting” an important post are really doing something to help. This is, of course, true in a sense. It is theoretically possible that anyone’s reblog can lead to a person who will actually donate money. But most of the time, the person reblogging the post about a needy family or foreign need will pat themselves on the back for “helping” and nothing will change.

But in some cases, it doesn’t seem to be about money at all. It’s about looking like you care.

The recent “Ice Bucket Challenge” phenomonon is a great example of the hypocrisy of social justice and charity in the digital age. Articles were written about how horrible it was that some people doing the challenge didn’t even mention ALS and about how great it was that the challenge had gone viral and raised millions of dollars for charity. I, along with many of my friends, chose to do the challenge and donate less than $100. However, several of the videoson my newsfeed described the challenge itself, nominated people, and ended with “You have 24 hours! Good luck!” 24 hours for what? The world may never know.

The intent of this post is to start discussion about social justice politics of The Circle‘s world and compare this aspect of the novel to our world. I believe that while there may not be a specific, particular point that Eggers was trying to make, a lot of things are brought into discussion by the inclusion of social justice issues in the book.


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One Response to The Circle and today: Online Social Justice

  1. exelsisxax says:

    I wholeheartedly agree with you here. The ALS challenge does not help anyone. It is a clever viral media stunt designed to maximize the world’s attention on a particular neurodegenerative disorder. And it, and all those increased donations, will be gone by next summer. At least it was an effective one.

    The whole situation reminds me of that “invisible children” campaign to stop child slavery of the most egregious kind by Joseph Kony. It gained incredible attention in the media last year, this year no one can remember what it was about. These are problems that no amount of awareness could ever even begin to stop. We’ve become to used to thinking that pressing a button matters at all, that all those views on youtube videos changes anything.

    That’s why “transparent” government being any better is a fever dream. Awareness is not action. We already have the awareness anyway. You can be a US congressman while shouting out on the floor that virtually everything in modern scientific theory is wrong. Transparency won’t count for anything until voter turnout reliably rises over 60% FOR PRESIDENTIAL ELECTIONS, and voters act more wisely than instantly rubber stamping their party candidate. People far too often think in these ways. If it actually worked, we wouldn’t have these single digit approval rated incumbents that keep winning.


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