Dave Eggers, The Circle and Why I’m Leaving the Bay Area
I can’t tell you definitively what brought me to San Francisco seven years ago. I mean, graduate school, but why did I apply to San Francisco State? There was the British guy who lived across the street from me who I had a crush on who said I would love it here. That’s the “it’s always about a boy” answer. I needed to leave Portland and become an adult and SFSU was the only school that didn’t require essays in their application and as a 23-year-old I was mainly too drunk to write admissions essays.
But there was also Dave Eggers. I read A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius when I was 18, in my senior year of high school. I read it again my freshman year of college. It blew my mind and changed my life in a way no other book really ever has. A concrete way. While reading the Bible and all of JD Salinger’s non-Catcher in the Rye work and Kurt Vonnegut (the other things I was really into at age 18) were moving and gave me vague ideas about spirituality, A Heartbreaking Work gave me permission to write the way I wanted to write, the way I had tentatively started writing, which was just: about being myself. I couldn’t believe this was actually allowed. That book also gave me an idea that the Bay Area was the place to be, a place where you could be a better version of yourself, a place where standing on the beach and throwing a Frisbee a million miles was possible, a place where tragedy and happiness could coexist.
I also liked the idea of Dave Eggers’ pirate supply store.
So in 2006 I got a tattoo of the state of Oregon on my chest so no one would forget where I was from and left Portland, moving out of the apartment I was sharing with my little brother and allowing all the drunk calls from the non-boyfriend guy I was sort of dating to go to voice mail.
In San Francisco, I became a new person, just like A Heartbreaking Work made me believe was possible. No one knew a single thing about me. I wasn’t held back by the expectations of people who’d known me since I was 13 months old, or four or eight or 14. People met me as Lizzy Acker, the adult. I got to be a writer, a friend, a dependable employee. I wasn’t the girl who totaled her family car in middle school or the girl who cried in Calculus class or staged an unsuccessful boycott of the Mr. Spartan Pageant or who looked like a boy up until sixth grade or who didn’t lose her virginity until she was 22.
I did a lot of amazing things here, had a million adventures. I fell in love, I finished graduate school, I wrote a book, I got my heart broken, I got a good job. I’ve had a very seriously eventful seven years. But a few months ago, I decided that it was time to go home.
In the same way I can’t pin down the thing that brought me here, what is making me leave is elusive and has changed a few times in the last couple months. I mean, as with everything, it’s about a boy. But after reading Dave Egger’s newest book, The Circle, I realize that there is more to it than just one boy.
I read The Circle like I haven’t read a book in a really long time. I read while walking to work, in line at Starbucks, sneakily in the bathroom, hiding it behind my back when I walked out. I was done in about two days. I couldn’t believe Dave Eggers had written another book that seemed to be so directly meant for me.
The Circle is the story of a girl, the Bay Area and social networking. The girl, Mae, starts working at a Google/Facebook monolith and quickly becomes subsumed by its culture and dogma, to the point where she truly believes the only way to be happy is to record every second of her life, is to have no secrets and no privacy. As a counterpoint to the glittery, safe, antiseptic tech wonderland of the Circle, Eggers uses Richardson Bay (never named) and the anarchic anchor-out community just off the shore of Sausalito. Weirdly, I spent all of September and still spend many of my weekends, out on this part of the Bay in a boat for an art project, so I knew it immediately. To me, this has become the Bay that I love, a beautiful place that still contains magic, while I’ve seen the city of San Francisco go from a place fueled by creativity and struggle, into a super-connected, spiritless town deadened by unquestioning Worship of the App. In The Circle, the changes in behavior and intense connectivity have gone farther than they currently are, but not by much. Mae is only a little connected when she starts out at her job at the Circle, with the equivalent of one Facebook page and one Twitter account, but by the end she has millions of followers on the all-inclusive Circle, nine screens, a camera around her neck and two bracelets to give her real-time physical and audience feedback. The only time she isn’t connected is when she goes to the bathroom and even then, only the audio is off.
It’s important to me that Eggers, who is famous for telling absolutely everything about himself in A Heartbreaking Work, is wrestling with the question of radical honesty online. I write about my life very openly–I like to and it feels right for me to be my own version of honest. However, I don’t want to tell you everything. I like to reserve the right to create my own narrative and I make things up sometimes. I change events to make them sound better or worse. And I like to keep some things–secret moments, two-person dance parties, a hand on my knee, mixed tapes–for myself.
In The Circle, Dave Eggers is pointing out how quickly we in the Bay, the nexus of the current startup movement which is completely reshaping world culture, are willing to adopt things that make our lives “easier,” without thinking of their logical consequences. How in a few years we have gone from defining ourselves by the feedback we get from the people immediately around us, to defining ourselves by the feedback we’re getting, the likes and shares and upvotes, from hordes of strangers. He is asking if it is really safe to allow a massive corporation, whose goal is to constantly make more money at a faster rate, to have all our information and mediate all our purchases, communications and media consumption, to mediate our whole lives.
As I’m writing this, my headphones are on and Facebook is making a pinging noise in my ears and immediately I am feeling that hope, desire that someone is acknowledging my existence, sharing something I wrote, liking something I said, saying I look cute in a picture. Later, I will check the analytics on this blog and maybe on a story I wrote somewhere else, earlier this week. I’ll probably check Twitter for any mentions of my name. I will be disappointed if there aren’t any.
I know my decision to leave San Francisco and to stop working in social media is the correct one.
I’m not a hundred percent sure what I will do when I leave. But at least for a little while, I am going home to Oregon, where I can measure my worth within myself and against the faces and real-life smiles of people I have known for 16, 25, 31 years.
I’m going to miss a lot of things here: the water in Sausalito, the sunshine, the seals, The Giant Dipper on the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk, my friends, my coworkers. But I won’t miss the three-screen experience that is my life mostly every day. I won’t miss the mediated communication with the people who have eye balls I would like to look into, who have hands I would like to hold. I won’t miss the lack of time for reflection.
Changing things is terrifying but in July my very best friend and I got matching tattoos of geometric California bears that he had drawn. I’m going to miss him so much I can barely think about it, but it’s time to leave and find a new place to be a new version of myself before I get lost in a mess of analytics, likes, shares and smiley faces. Of course, I’m giving notice and not leaving until December. I wanted to give you some time to process the whole thing. But after that, if you want, let’s start sending each other letters.