Megan Angelo’s new novel Followers takes readers into a near-future version of the United States where our collective obsession with the internet, social media, and staring at screens has had some pretty dire consequences. Along the way, readers will meet a young writer named Orla trying to find a way to succeed in the cutthroat literary world of New York City. Here, Megan Angelo chats with We Are Bookish about social media, privacy, and being inspired by a Kylie Jenner quote.
This book opens with two quotes: one from Friedrich Nietzsche and one from Kylie Jenner. Nietzsche says: “What? You seek something? You seek to multiply yourself tenfold, a hundredfold? You seek followers? Seek zeros!” Jenner says: “I know how influential I am over my fans and followers. I feel like everything I do, my hair color, my makeup, I always start these huge trends, and I don’t even realize what I’m capable of.” How did you decide on those quotes (and speakers) in particular?
Well, this is going to be an honest answer. I started with Kylie and worked backwards. I, as you can probably guess from having read the book, worked in celebrity journalism for a long time. I think, and I should know this off the top of my head, Kylie said that in a Time or Newsweek piece that I read. I had been working on this book already and was researching Kylie, because she was always on my mind because of the great power that she wields in this arena.
A couple of years ago I would have read it as a “potato chip” quote: nothing, just air and salt and whatever. But when I found it, it struck me as so dark! I was in the mindset of working on this book and thinking of all of the bad things that could come from having power over all of these followers. It struck me as a really sinister quote.
Later, I was doing some reading on the internet to see what others had said about people with big audiences, and I found the bit from Nietzsche that even had the word “followers” in it. I thought, “Wow! That’s perfect.” But I was more inspired by the Kylie Jenner quote and wanting to set up a contrast for the reader between the deep, brainy stuff in this book and some of the not-so-deep stuff (and that they won’t always know which is which).
I kept thinking of The Truman Show while I was reading the sections where Marlow is filmed. Were there particular movies or television shows that inspired the way you wrote those scenes?
My biggest inspiration was definitely Instagram, especially when I sat down to construct the town of Constellation. This came later in the process of envisioning the book. I took an urban planner’s view of things, and asked myself: If Instagram wanted to build a city, what would it look like? I put everything else aside and thought about that.
When I began to think about the implications of everyone being filmed all of the time, I thought about The Truman Show a lot. I love that movie. I was thinking about my experience watching it as much as the content itself. I’m 35 now, and back when that movie came out, the experience was different. If I see a movie now, I have all of this information about it beforehand from reviews, trailers, and Rotten Tomatoes. But back then, I saw that movie because I loved Jim Carrey. I thought it was going to be another funny Jim Carrey movie, but it was so different. The town inspired me, and it took me back to the evolution of both media and the nature of celebrity.
To what extent do you see the events of this book as an extension of “influencer” culture?
Without influencer culture, I don’t think this book would exist. My career and my time covering celebrities has straddled the reality show era up to the Instagram influencer era, and I’ve seen the ways the power players have changed. When I was a journalist, it really meant a lot for someone who was trying to make it big on Instagram to get coverage in a legitimate outlet or web site. Now it’s kind of going the other way, and web sites cover the things that celebrities do on Instagram. In 2006 and 2007 and 2008, there were no bigger stars than the kids on Jersey Shore and The Hills and The City. Now, Instagram is the starting point and people can control their image completely. It doesn’t matter what MTV wants them to do––they can do it themselves. I hoped to pinpoint this particular moment in influencer culture. It changes so much, and it’s all worth looking at.
In this book, screen time has profoundly negative health effects. How concerned are you about what screen time is doing to all of us?
I am concerned about it. I think about it a lot in terms of memory, which is sort of where the fog [a disease associated with long-term screen use] came in. My personal experience is that since I’ve had screens, I don’t record memories as well as I did–maybe because part of my brain is thinking, “Let’s take a picture of this.” I have little kids, and I’m constantly reminding myself to stay in the moment and not just take pictures. Then, cut to me at the end of the year and I’m crying because my computer’s out of space and I’m like “Why did I take all of these?!” The thing that’s most concerning to me about screens is that we just don’t know. There are a lot of studies coming out saying that screens are safe, but I’ve had certain tee shirts longer than I’ve had a phone. I’m not necessarily convinced.
This novel portrays the NYC literary world as very competitive. To what extent did you draw on your own experiences in writing about it?
Well, it’s interesting because this is my first book. I lived in New York City all through my twenties, and I wasn’t trying to write a book then, but I was trying to break into screenwriting and TV production. I came to NYC right at the moment where kids who had a cool Tumblr or a great YouTube account were getting these enormous pilot deals from networks, or their own talk shows, or some huge book deal. Being in NYC, you’re always meeting people who are hinting that they have something big afoot.
I remember having a party in my apartment where some guy showed up who had a mutual friend, and said “You’re a writer? I’m a writer too. I’m writing this screenplay and they’re already calling it Oscar bait, and my agent doesn’t want me to say too much about it.” So 35-year-old me now is like, okay, that guy was obviously full of shit. Good for him for being confident, but no one is calling a screenplay that he’s writing Oscar bait unless it’s a really good friend or his mom. But 27-year-old me is totally buying into it and going into my room and slamming the door and saying “I’m going to work on my screenplay right now!” I constantly felt like I was behind and was trying to do things the right way by getting a job, but I really wanted to be a writer of some sort. I do feel like I was Orla, but only at like 3am after three drinks or more. I wasn’t walking around that bitter all the time, but when you’re in NYC, it can get to you–especially when you’re young.
The word “followers” is loaded in this book: Everyone wants followers and no one wants to be thought of as one. What interested you in this subject?
The book was originally called “Cursive.” I don’t know why except that I was so besotted by the presence of cursive in this book, and I thought it was a very literary title. Later, I was in a class and we were discussing titles for our books, and I said maybe I should call it “Followers.” Everyone was like, “OBVIOUSLY,” and from then on out, I did. I can’t remember what made me make that shift except for the thing that you’re really outlining in your question. Followers now are the ultimate currency. Even when I’m thinking of something from a journalistic perspective, I’ll look up the subject and look up how many followers they have because I’m thinking ahead to see if they’ll drive traffic. That’s where the circular nature of it comes in. That’s how we all think of followers now as an automatic term. But I think we all had a parent turn to us around the age of 10 and say, “Never be a follower, be a leader!” It’s this thing that continues to interest me. How can we all want something so badly and use it as this measurement of our worth and how we stand in the world, but none of us actually want to be one of them? I still don’t really have the answer even after exploring it for 400-something pages. It continues to really fascinate me, and I wonder if it’s a concept with an expiration date. None of us set out to do this, but we all get sucked in.
Much of the technology in this book is very advanced and should make your characters’ lives easier. Instead, many of your characters struggle for autonomy over their lives. Do you see technological advances as being in conflict with personal autonomy?
I don’t think that it’s so much restricting our autonomy as it makes us live differently. Once you kind of get into that routine of posting something in a way that makes it look good and then checking your phone every 30 seconds to see who has liked it and internalizing that feedback (“I thought 100 people would like it but only 14 did!”) it’s really hard to go back. It’s really hard to live for your own pleasure. A lot of us are doing things a little bit differently than we would if we didn’t have phones. I think about it a lot when I’m out and someone will take a group picture, and everyone will look to see if it’s good. This goes back to like 2007. Before we could hold out our arm and take a decent picture of ourselves, we got cameras where you could look at the picture right after you took it. What has happened in the four to five hours of my life, hopefully not more, when I was looking down at that picture to see if it was good? And then I wonder, what has happened in the way more than four or five hours of my life I’ve spent on Instagram to see who liked my posts? It’s depressing, and it’s changed the way we live our lives. Sometimes I’ll be somewhere where you’d normally pull out your phone, like a waiting room, and force myself to leave it in my bag because I think, “How could I ever come up with another character or a snippet of dialogue in my life if I’m looking at a screen that just contains everyone I already know?” I keep my head up like a creep and try not to look down at my phone.
Privacy versus sharing is a major theme in this book. How much do you value privacy on the internet, and how much are you comfortable sharing in general?
I truly have no judgement towards how other people share. I’m a big taker on social media. I want to see your kid’s Halloween costume and your vacation, and I want to see whatever shady shit is out there about celebrities. I take all of it, and I’m in no position to judge. I can be kind of selfish when it comes to my own sharing. I’m at the end of the spectrum that values privacy. I don’t post my kids, and I don’t post that much in general, although I’m doing more now for this book. My approach comes from having some early experience with the internet. I’ve been around long enough on the internet to have experienced some trolls and mean emails and comments, and I have a lot of friends who have horror stories about that stuff too. So that really informs my presence on the internet from a personal standpoint.
Megan Angelo has written about television, film, women and pop culture, and motherhood for publications including The New York Times (where she helped launch city comedy coverage), Glamour (where she was a contributing editor and wrote a column on women and television), Elle, The Wall Street Journal, Marie Claire, and Slate. She is a native of Quakertown, Pennsylvania and a graduate of Villanova University. She currently lives in Pennsylvania with her family. Followers is her first novel.