If you've ever worked for a startup you already know some companies operate like cults. The gleaming, amenity-laden offices can quickly become snack-packed handcuffs locking employees to their jobs. Who needs a personal life when you have employment, right? Having dabbled in a couple different versions of this world, The New York Times Magazine excerpt from Dave Eggers' new novel, The Circle, hit really close to home. It's a funny, wry, and cutting take on the need for some employers to embed themselves in every aspect of an employee's life.
The section the Times printed, called "We Like You So Much and Want to Know You Better" is a droll parody of the idea that no matter how much you give your job in the tech world, there's always something more you could be doing – sharing through your personal social media, participating in team building exercises off the clock, or, in the case of a character named Mae, improving your "Participation Rank." Here's a bit from that excerpt where Mae gets verbally spanked for not being a good enough employee her first couple weeks on the job from Dan, her team leader.
“O.K., let’s focus on Friday at 5:30. We had a gathering in the Old West, where your friend Annie works. It was semi-mandatory, it was very fun, but you weren’t there. You were off-campus, which really confuses me. It’s as if you were fleeing.”
Mae’s mind raced. Why hadn’t she gone? Where was she? How had she missed a semi-mandatory event? The notice must have been buried deep in her social feed.
“God, I’m sorry,” she said, remembering now. “My dad had a seizure — he has MS, so it happens sometimes. It ended up being minor, but I didn’t know that until I got home.”
Dan looked at his glass desk and, with a tissue, tried to remove a smudge. Satisfied, he looked up.
“That’s very understandable. To spend time with your parents, believe me, I think that is very, very cool. I just want to emphasize the community aspect of this job. We see this workplace as a community, and every person who works here is part of that community. To that end, I wonder if you’d be willing to stay a few extra minutes, to talk to Josiah and Denise. I think you remember them from your orientation? They’d love to just extend the conversation we’re having and go a bit deeper. Does that sound good?”
The Times piece is worth reading not only to get a sense of the tone and themes in the novel, but also because of animated illustrations by Christoph Niemann. His black and white people are looped into mazes and matrixes that move as you move down the page.
The sprawling campus depicted in The Circle, which comes out Oct. 8, is already getting journalists guessing about which tech giant the fictional company is based upon. But Eggers is attempting to cut those rumors to the quick with a mini-Q&A on the McSweeney's site.Q: Is this book about Google or Facebook or any particular company?
No, no. The book takes place after a company called the Circle has subsumed all the big tech companies around today. The Circle has streamlined search and social media into one system and that’s enabled it to grow very quickly in size and power.
Regardless of where the ideas came from, The Circle seems like it's based on ideas ripe for social critique. One of my favorite office culture parodies is Joshua Ferris' Then We Came to the End, a biting look at groupthink in a Chicago ad agency (that could really be any office setting anywhere). So far, The Circle seems to take a similar tongue-in-cheek approach to the new culty workday culture. Leave it to the satirists to remind everyone about the importance of a life-work balance – and, of course, a strong Participation Rank score in the real world.