Mae Holland is not what you would call a stable person. From the day her job begins at the Internet superpower corporation of The Circle, Mae’s relationships, emotional health, and ability to make intelligent decisions pretty much go down the drain. Throughout The Circle, the character of Mae spends most of her time communicating, working on her popularity, and promoting her company through social media. These fast-paced scenes only break when Mae removes herself from the chaos and goes kayaking on the bay, offering the readers a chance to see her reflect and think after spending so much time in the overwhelming atmosphere of The Circle. These infrequent trips are an attempt by Mae to balance her skewed mentality, but are unsuccessful because it doesn’t make up for the fact that she meets too much of her needs through social media rather than tangibly in the real world, something that I strive to do by focusing my time on the Internet so that I can use what I learn there to experience more in daily life.
Mae’s kayaking adventures are the antithesis to all that she does at The Circle, which is exactly why they are so calming for her and why she values them so highly. Throughout the entire novel, Mae’s time, other than that spent with her parents or on the water, is time spent in constant communication and constant activity as she struggles to get through the deluge of trivial messages and customer questions whose “flow does not stop”, but which Mae reads as “validation” of her hard work (Eggers 55). Mae is instructed by her coworkers to use social media almost constantly, with any reluctance on her part viewed as unethical and wrong. When Gina comes to get Mae set up with the social side of The Circle, Mae mentions how overwhelmed she’s been feeling by way of apology for not being caught up. Gina is shocked at this attitude, and explains to Mae that “communication is certainly not extracurricular, right?”, and that “we (The Circle) consider your online presence to be integral to your work here” (Eggers 96). Rather than feeling unsettled by Gina’s rant, Mae is ashamed that she let herself acknowledge any discontentment with her demanding workload. It is this sense shame, inflicted by her coworkers, that increasingly forces Mae to ignore her own emotions and judgment for fear of being seen as less than completely committed to The Circle’s goals. She convinces herself that the demands of The Circle come from people who are her friends and want the best for her. Later, after the unsettling meeting with Alistair and Dan, Annie reveals that she knew all about the conflict; Mae pushes down “profound unease” about this invasion of privacy even more quickly than she did in her confrontation with Gina, and immediately feels “a wave of relief, knowing her friend had been with her, even remotely, and could confirm that Mae would survive” (110). As Mae begins to get more and more used to the idea of people constantly being ‘with’ her through social media, and therefore able to ‘confirm’ her decisions and thoughts, she loses sight of what it means to be alone and the ability to trust her own thoughts and actions. While kayaking, Mae is cut off from this sense of constant validation and is able to self-reflect solitarily, something that she cannot do at The Circle. Even though this means cutting herself off from the support that constant community offers her, it also means that she doesn’t have to constantly put up a mask of what her fellow Circlers expect to see: a calm, competent part of the whole. On the first trip of the book, Mae shows more emotion than she does throughout the rest of the novel, crying in the bay over her father’s illness and her role in his caretaking. Emotionally honest with herself for the first time since she came to The Circle, Mae thinks to herself that “it felt good to cry”, and that when she stopped she “was calm and felt strong” (83). This strikes a dramatic contrast to Mae’s general emotional baseline once she goes transparent and must entertain millions of viewers during every waking minute, and therefore must put all of herself into seeming cheery and energetic. Even when Mercer kills himself, something that is arguably Mae’s doing, her emotional reaction is stunted, and she is able to quickly remind herself of the purity and simplicity of The Circle’s mission in order to stay (inappropriately) upbeat and optimistic. Immediately, she lets herself believe Bailey’s insistence that “people wanted to help…you did”, and that it had been Mercer’s own sickness that had caused him to reject the kindness of the people who practically hunted him down, Mae included (468). In a span of a few minutes, Mae goes from distraught to entirely calm, focusing her thoughts on the Circle, how “simple it all was, how pure”, despite the fact that any organization that can lead a person to suicide is clearly anything but pure (470). Simply being in the brainwashing presence of her fellow Circlers is enough to dismantle any intelligent, individual thoughts that Mae has during her trip. During her two subsequent kayaking outings in the novel, one in which she meets a couple living technology-free on the bay, and the next where she takes a stolen kayak to a distant island, Mae’s thoughts dwell on ideas that contradict what she embraces at The Circle. At the end of her third and final trip, standing on Blue Island, Mae reflects that “it was enough to be aware of the million permutations possible around her, and take comfort in knowing that she would not, and really could not, know much at all” (272). The next day, however, after she is caught stealing the kayak that took her to the island, Mae readily makes the decision to go transparent, proving that whatever conclusions she drew while by herself fell flat in the face of The Circle’s quest to know all. There are two sides of Mae that seem to be unable to coexist at once: the side of her that embraces solitude, and the side of her that buys into The Circle’s dismissal of privacy. Before she entirely abandons that solitude to transparency, Mae’s kayaking trips seem to be her mind’s attempt to strike a balance with the overwhelming drive to know all at The Circle and be in constant contact with a ‘supportive’ community that barely knows her. Though the kayak trips provide time for Mae to reflect and be emotionally honest with herself, the fact that she turns off that part of her brain when she returns to her job proves that she’s not bringing any of that experience with her, and the trips don’t really improve her mental health or give her balance.
Balance is key to the times when I feel most peaceful and at home. Like Mae—to an extent—I can’t take an overload of social media-oriented communication. The occasions, and they aren’t rare, in which I spend hours scrolling through newsfeeds or am continually distracted by new things even when I want to get off the internet, are definitely not peaceful for me. For me, these Internet splurges are the ultimate distraction. The longer I spend online, the surer of a sign it is of me avoiding some responsibility going on in real life, which turns this excellent tool for communication and education into an addictive source of anxiety, mindless impulsivity, and instant gratification. However, there is also an anxiety that comes along with being completely cut off. Recently I spent a week camping in the mountains of West Virginia, where, infamously, there is no service for miles. Obviously, without the ability to access the Internet, I am also not able to abuse the Internet, but I soon ran into basic obstacles that are practically non-existent when it’s available. On the last day of our trip, we found a dog on the side of the road, which, though very friendly, had no collar and was likely abandoned by bear hunters due to a limp. Without cell service we were unable to look up or even call no-kill shelters in the area, and, because my aunt refused to abandon her, ended up driving the four hours back to Baltimore with this huge blue-tick hound dog riding along in the back of our car. Once we got back home my aunt, a dog enthusiast with many dog enthusiast friends, quickly found a home for the hound, who we had named Sally, at a farm owned by my cousin’s friend. Being able to solve problems like these through a simple Facebook message proves that the communication provided to us through social media is pretty much completely beneficial. And, though I can’t say I didn’t enjoy my week in the mountains, I was pretty happy to be able to access the connection that I’m used to. However, I also, relatively quickly, slipped back into the habit of spending too long on Facebook’s newsfeed even after my friends had gone offline, or getting off onto Wikipedia tangents by clicking through to pages that had nothing to do with what I had originally intended to find out. Realizing that you’ve been sitting in the same position for nearly two hours looking at something you don’t particularly care about is not a great feeling, and wastes time you could be spending doing something you enjoy and that enhances your life. Though it can be difficult, I have found that the most successful way to use technology to the fullest is to use it to inform and enhance relationships and education found in day-to-day life, something that Mae is obviously not successful with as she completely cuts out the “day-to-day life” aspect of her relationships and life experiences and uses the Internet for all her needs.
Mae and I seem to be getting at the same idea with our experiences, though they do have major differences. A huge discord between my sense of balance and Mae’s is that she only has the chance to balance her connectivity with solitude “once every few weeks” (186). Her “binges” are mandatory, go for days on end, and pretty much consist of shallow interactions that rely on her putting forth a cheery and energetic face for customers. What Mae and I value in our time spent connected differs in this regard, as I, like many people, only feel that sense of balance if I’m doing something purposeful and meaningful with my time on social media, such as talking to good friends or looking into something that interests me. The key to feeling balanced is using social media to fulfill some, but not all, of a need, whether it is social, educational, or otherwise. Relationships should be built online as much as they are in real life, something Mae fails to do when she stops visiting her parents and tries to maintain her bond through social media, sending them link after link of information about MS (374) rather than visiting and talking one-on-one. And, though the internet can be a wonderful source for accessing pictures and writing about places I have never been, it doesn’t mean that I should stop exploring and learning about the places and people that are actually around me, something that Circle innovations like SeeChange make pretty much obsolete. Mae doesn’t reach a balance because she begins to use The Circle to meet all of her needs. Rather than using social media as a tool for communication, she begins to see it as the only way to communicate. In order to be balanced, we cannot let social media eclipse other experiences in life. This means being aware of what aspects of social media are important to you so that your time spent connected is focused and purposeful, and informs, but doesn’t make up the entirety of, your life experience.
It’s easy to see only the negative sides of technology when you allow it to waste time, but the truth is it is so engrained in our habits that it’s impossible to ignore how central it has become. The fact that the Internet is a part of our daily lives is indisputable, but it should not be seen as the be-all, end-all of our life’s experiences. The key to finding balance is being able to use the Internet and social media for needs, but using it in moderation when it comes to non-essentials. Mae’s problems finding peace is evidence that there is a definitive split between the version of herself that is honest and reflective and the version that gives all its energy to The Circle, so much so that the two sides are unable to learn from each other. There are still valid reasons to be connected, such as access to education, entertainment, and the ability to build and maintain relationships, but these things can also be found when you’re not connected, something Mae did not realize. It’s important to not put all your eggs in one basket, so to speak, and to use social media as needed, but not for everything. My own personal ‘kayak trips’, or the time that I spend away from the internet, becomes equally important to the time that I spend connected if both are helping me learn and grow. Mae’s failure to have a healthy relationship with the Internet doesn’t negate the positive aspects of social media, but rather alludes to the need for balance in our everyday lives.