By Cliff Ennico

Every small business conference I have attended in the past year has featured at least one keynote speaker who I shall call the “social media screamer.”

This individual, probably a former college cheerleader (or lead singer in a punk rock band), gets up on stage and starts dancing, jumping up and down and screaming at the top of his lungs (very seldom is the “screamer” a female) about the benefits of social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter.

“You should be marketing your business on social media, because social media is the future,” is this speaker’s mantra, which he repeats ad nauseam in 1,000 different forms, such as:

  • “Your kids are all hooked on social media just like you were hooked on television; to a kid, it ain’t real unless his friends are texting about it on social media, so you can’t sell to kids if you’re not on social media;”
  • “If you’re not on social media, you business will go bankrupt, your spouse will divorce you, your kids will disown you and your dog will pee on your leg;”
  • “You should spend at least five hours every day updating your social media feeds, and you should have a presence on all 3,176 social media sites.”

Now, maybe it’s so, maybe it ain’t, but one recent speaker I heard went too far. When an audience member asked about the need for privacy online, the speaker chuckled, rolled his eyes, and replied “ma’am, let me tell you the truth, no one gives a rat’s pitootie about privacy.”’

I beg to disagree.

I’m in the middle of reading Dave Eggers’ novel The Circle. I haven’t finished it yet, but from what I’ve read so far this book should be Number One on your reading list if, like me, you are confused about social media and where it is taking us as a society.

The book is set on the campus of a fictional social media Web company called “The Circle.” This corporation, combining features of Apple, Facebook, Twitter and Amazon, has developed a social media solution that enables users to combine all of their social media, spending, banking and other online accounts into a single Web presence. Users must use their own names – they cannot hide behind user names or aliases. Thus, their presence on The Circle is, indeed, their very identity.

Having raised gazillions of dollars, The Circle’s 10,000-plus employees are encouraged to develop new products and services. For example, cameras the size of Post-it Notes that people can put up on walls anywhere, indoors or outdoors. With a single mouse click, users can access all cameras at a particular location and see in real time what’s going on there. Including people’s bedrooms.

The novel’s protagonist, a 20-something named “Mae,” is recruited for The Circle by her former college roommate, who is one of the company’s inner-circle “Gang of 40” senior executives. As Mae climbs the corporate ladder (more accurately, as layers of management are built up beneath her as the company experiences exponential growth), she is told that her success depends not only on her job performance, but on her participation in The Circle’s social media platform, on her Web postings generally, and in company-sponsored social events that occur several times a day.

As the novel progresses, Mae gradually starts to realize that The Circle is taking over her entire life, and that everything she does – both on-campus and off – is expected to be visible to the world at large and open to public approval (or criticism). At one point, her superior reprimands her for not posting her daily activities frequently enough, explaining that any withholding of information by Circle employees is “selfish” and contrary to The Circle’s mission: to capture, in real time, everything everyone is experiencing every second of every day, everywhere around the globe.

Again, I haven’t yet finished the book, but so far the author seems to be ambivalent about the role of social media in people’s lives. He acknowledges that social media can be a force for social and political progress, citing the recent Arab revolutions in Egypt and Tunisia and pointing out that if police officers knew there were hidden cameras everywhere trained on them, they would refrain from brutalizing suspects like Rodney King or Trayvon Martin.

But the author also illustrates the potential abuses of social media by large corporations (like The Circle itself), dictators, authoritarian governments, employers, and others who say “we are one community” and “we care about you” but actually have quite different agendas. The theme of “Big Brother is watching you” has been dealt with before, of course – in George Orwell’s “1984.” The Circle is very much a “1984” for our times, and is more frightening than anything Stephen King has ever written, precisely because the technology to create “Big Brother” exists today as it did not in Orwell’s time.

Buy it, and read it now.

Cliff Ennico (www.succeedinginyourbusiness.com), a leading expert on small business law and taxes, is the author of “Small Business Survival Guide,” “The eBay Seller’s Tax and Legal Answer Book” and 15 other books. Follow Cliff: @cliffennico