Books for the Extremely Online
As someone whose entire career has been built upon being extremely online, I have a soft spot for those books that recreate the surrealism of that life to perfection.
I’m a narcissist like that.
Sure, way back when, when I was in my early 20s, my dream was to one day be a staff writer for Jane magazine. But when life unspooled before me, I ended up hopping from online magazine to online magazine to online magazine until I eventually became a full-time freelancer who wrote primarily for… online magazines.
My spouse, meanwhile, is a software developer who develops… online magazines. He did his own time in various startups before settling down with a more established media company.
We both spend a lot of time on social media.
I’m always interested in novels that skewer online media culture. At this point in my career, I am both cynical as hell about the field in which I work, and also ruined for anything else. What am I gonna do? Put on hard pants and take a bus into the city again?
So when I see a book that demonizes startup culture or social media usage or online media, it feels like home.
Maybe you feel that way, too.
If any of what I’m saying sounds familiar, welcome. Pull up a chair. And if you’re looking for some books to read, I’ve gathered a few here that give me that aforementioned jolt of recognition. Enjoy.
The Circle by Dave Eggers
Nearly a decade old now, The Circle feels like a book from a bygone era, back before Facebook became Meta, back before Facebook bought Instagram, back before we succumbed fully to the almighty algorithm, no longer caring that the ads in our social media feeds seemed capable of reading our minds. Now, it’s too late to go back. But back then, when Eggers wrote The Circle, it all felt slightly less inevitable. In this dystopian tale, a recent college graduate lands a job at a powerful tech company, where she quickly climbs the corporate ladder. But the company’s push for full transparency across the world begins to feel ever more intrusive and, well, just plain creepy. Will our protagonist realize things have gone too far — or is it too late for her?
Ghoster by Jason Arnopp
It’s hard to root for anyone in this supernatural thriller but, at the same time, it’s also hard to look away. The protagonist of Ghoster leaves her life behind in order to move in with her new boyfriend, only to find upon her arrival that he’s disappeared and that his flat has been emptied… except for his mobile phone. Naturally, she hacks into his phone and scours his social media feeds and his photo library to find out what the hell is going on. But the more focused she becomes on digging into his life, the more things seem to spiral out of her control. She could totally walk away — but will she?
Margot Mertz Takes It Down by Carrie McCrossen and Ian McWethy
The premise of this YA novel isn’t exactly light — the young woman behind an internet clean-up business is tasked with taking down a revenge porn site — but the young woman in question is a high school junior, the victims who hired her are fellow students, and the whole book gives major Veronica Mars vibes. At a time when it seems frustratingly impossible to fight back against the online harassment that has proliferated across the internet, it feels satisfying to see someone go head-to-head with the perpetrators of such heinous crimes.
The Startup Wife by Tahmima Anam
A brilliant coder and a spiritual seeker fall in love, get married, and go into business together, developing a social media app that creates meaningful rituals for its users. Can their marriage survive what comes next? This book is a delicious skewering of startup culture and of the patriarchy, and an exploration of the things we build our lives around and the things upon which we impart meaning. Perhaps the most disturbing part of the whole read is that, after I finished the last page, I was like, Yes. Could someone please point me toward an app that tells me how to bring meaning to my life at a time when I just feel exhausted and directionless all the time? Clearly, I learned nothing.
Social Creature by Tara Isabella Burton
A Talented Mr. Ripley for the social media age, this thriller is about Louise — a young woman with a dull life and writerly dreams — who is befriended by the glamorous, well-connected party girl Lavinia, a woman who likes to document everything for the ‘gram. But when things turn sour, Louise finds it startlingly easy to step into Lavinia’s life, even using her Instagram feed as a tool for subterfuge. Underneath the thrills and the suspense is a smart commentary on the self we present to the world, and the way it colors how others see us.
Aesthetica by Allie Rowbottom
In a similar vein to the above book, Rowbottom’s novel (not out until November ’22, from Soho Press) also examines what we present to the world via our Instagram feeds, albeit from a different angle. In this quick, somewhat upsetting read, a former Instagram celebrity is about to undergo surgery that will reverse all of her previous plastic surgery procedures, reverting her to what she hopes will be her True Self. In the hours leading up to this procedure, we learn about the experiences she had 15 years ago as her follower count climbed, including a traumatic incident that occurred at the hands of her former brand manager/boyfriend.
#FashionVictim by Amina Akhtar
Bringing me back to the magazine world I lovehate is Akhtar’s satirical novel #FashionVictim, about an aspiring fashion editor who will do anything (anything) to make it to the top. This murderous Instagram trendsetter, whose body count rises along with her follower count, really brings it with the dark humor. One moment, she’s befriending her fellow fashionistas, engaging in some healthy competition; the next moment, well… people turn up dead. Will there be anyone left once this protagonist makes it to the top?
Happy for You by Claire Stanford
Finally, because I can’t resist a good self-help app, we have Stanford’s novel about a philosophy student struggling to figure out how to do meaningful work in the world, finally leaving academia to work as a researcher at an internet company. Her team there is tasked with developing an app that helps users improve their happiness levels, but she soon realizes that the algorithms favor those in the predominantly white culture. As a biracial Asian American who doesn’t fit social media’s version of ideal womanhood, everything is thrown into question.
Done with these books and want a nonfiction take on it all? Check out this list of 50 must-read books about tech and startup culture.