Megan Angelo takes a deep dive into the vapid, self-obsessive world of social media and reality programming, which are easy targets for derision. And at first it seems like she’s jumping into the pile-on, turning the full force of her sarcasm and irony on the image-obsessed. And that would be a safe and rather snarkily fun story, but you can’t write a great book about something you hold in contempt. Angelo has a healthy respect for her subject matter: she understands the allure of being both an influencer and a follower, even as she might also fear or despise it. She gives her straw women hearts and brains and courage and makes real girls out of selfie simulacra. And then she starts pointing out that their lives are like anybody else’s: they’re bigger, and smaller, and way, way harder than they first appear.
Start to finish, this book just gets it: gets the allure, gets the horror, and gets all the in-between stuff that’s so much more than any post or tweet or filtered pic. All the compromises of ordinary lives are amplified when they’re put on display, and all the mistakes and sins become matters of spin instead of morality. Orla, Floss, and Marlow are all misled, seduced, and betrayed by fame; they also do their share of misleading, seducing, and betraying. They’re such wonderful, messy characters, living in worlds that are just as messy as our own.
Florence “Floss” Natuzzi is the influencer wannabe: she’s come to New York because she wants to be famous for any reason, at any cost. She thinks her beautiful singing voice will get her there, but even in the first pages of the novel she begins to realize that spectacle gets more clicks than talent. Orla Cadden already knows this. She writes for an online clickbait magazine, but dreams of being a novelist. Her job, and the internet in general, have made her distractible, however, and so her writing is haphazard and her life is a series of episodes: work, salad place, home. She decides to help Floss as a means of focusing her own life, but is quickly drawn further and further into Floss’s orbit. Together, they hatch a scheme to catapult them both into the influencer world. And it works. And it keeps on working until everyone loves them, and further still, until everyone hates them, and they hate each other.
Even though there are hookups and marriages and professional relationships with men, this book is about the relationships women have with other women. Mothers, daughters, bosses, employees, and friends all fail each other in such interesting ways. Followers is, in some ways, a catalog of all the ways women are forced, or choose freely, to either compromise their own needs or trample on those of other women. This is especially true of the social media and influencer world, in which attention is a zero-sum game, despite any efforts to build up other women instead of breaking them down. The most cataclysmic tragedy of the book comes when Orla tries to provide genuine encouragement to a young girl, but does so via social media. The effort, small as it is, results in death and disaster. Hyperbolic? Not really: Angelo knows that drama is always more interesting than good intentions.
If kindness kills, though, cruelty is little better. Floss has no trouble being viciously indifferent, but even that’s not enough. She also has to be approachable. She keeps a Post-it note with a chipper reminder on the fridge: “Be relatable!!!!!” (p. 157, all emphasis original). Her shock jock boyfriend has no such requirements: he sells T-shirts printed with the rude things he says to his mother, and posts pictures of his own excrement. It’s a microcosm of every woman’s double bind; the need to be appealing on top of everything else. Floss can’t win any more than Orla can.
And Marlow, who doesn’t try to help or hurt anyone and is kept in a state of medicated mildness? She gets criticized even for the way she takes a drink of juice. Yet the message she’s heard since she was young is how essential followers and social media are to her personally. “‘No one loves you more than your followers,’ the clown said” (p. 240). It’s not subtle, but it’s so deliciously biting. The whole book is stuffed with ironies and sarcasm enough to make any New Yorker proud. This is a thoroughly NYC book, a sharp-eyed encapsulation of all its glamor and exhaustion. Everyone is hustling, running the Red Queen’s race at a dead sprint, all the while pretending that they’re not even winded. Yet it’s to that world that California-raised Marlow flees when she gets a glimpse of the world Floss and Orla created a generation ago.
A great cataclysm shook the USA between the start of Orla and Floss’s stories and the beginning of Marlow’s, though the chapters alternate between the two timelines. The disaster was two-pronged, one part cyber attack and one part health crisis. Terrorists gained access to all personal data and began sharing all of the most secret, intimate details of everyone’s lives with those closest to them. Suicide spiked and trust diminished to nothing. At around the same time, doctors began to realize that excessive exposure to digital screens caused early-onset dementia. The excess of knowing and the tragedy of forgetting, all brought to bear on a single generation, was too much. Everyone decided they were done with sharing.
To restore trust (and to get back the data they wanted to keep on their citizens), the government partnered with corporations to create highly regulated, sanitized content for people to follow, avatars of inoffensiveness with no secrets. Marlow is one of the results of that collaboration: she is a living commodity and an active promoter of commodities, her entire life lived in a Truman Show-esque neighborhood called Constellation. Her days revolve around maintaining her follower count and being the perfect representative of Hysteryl, a mood-stabilizing drug.
Regarding Hysteryl, Angelo makes very clear that Marlow using the drug is the result of a marketing ploy devised by people who do not have her best interests at heart. She is not given access to doctors, therapists, or even meaningful choices: her mother and network executives decide, when she is a minor, that this is what is expected of her. And once she’s on Hysteryl, the color quite literally goes out of the world. She’s placid, accepting, and malleable, not actually mentally well. I can already see some of the critiques of this book saying that it’s anti-mental health and anti-medication, so let me head those off. I’m a grateful user of SSRIs. At no time did I feel like this book was advocating for me to go off medication. This is not against mental health medication, but against using mental health care as a means of controlling women rather than helping them.
That may seem like a fine hair to split, but I have been on the receiving end of both. I have had therapists interested only in getting me to a place where I was not their problem (or potential liability), and I have had therapists who have wept along with me in an abundance of true empathy. I have had psychiatrists go way over time to allay my fears, and I have had a psychiatrist who told me to “be logical” and ignore my symptoms when I told him a medication was not working. This book isn’t scared of a future with mental health; it’s satirizing a present that already fails female patients in specific ways.
But is it ethical to use a mental health drug as a metaphor anymore? I don’t know. All I know is that this book does an admirable job of distinguishing genuine mental health from the illusion of wellness. Even in the name, Hysteryl, we know that this drug is meant to dismiss inconvenient emotions in a highly gendered way. Female anger and sadness aren’t just inconvenient in Followers, nowthey're also unmarketable.
These feelings coalesce into rebellion when Marlow’s given her story assignment for the next season: the studio execs have decided she is going to have a baby. As a result, they take her off Hysteryl, and when the world hardens, she hardens her heart along with it. She flees to New York, thinking it will give her what she wants like Orla and Floss once did, only to likewise find that escaping fame isn’t so easy.
Marlow ends up with a childhood frenemy, one who left Constellation and began advocating against it, deriving an ironic form of her own fame and influence from the controversy. Honey Mitchell creates privacy havens—but only for those who can afford it. The privileged want their privacy not on principle, but to hide their crimes and indiscretions, something Honey wants to include Marlow in. Privacy you can buy, though, isn’t really all that private. Your co-conspirators know what you’ve done, and so do your victims.
Angelo makes a point of describing Honey and her movement as racist as well as inevitably sexist. Honey dresses in unsubtly all-white outfits, hosts soirees in which all participants don white masks, and permits only white people to join her exclusive club. It’s bitter and biting, but it doesn’t tell us much more about race or racism in this near future. Mostly, it establishes that Honey is untrustworthy and that Marlow is not as safe as she previously thought. That feels like a missed opportunity to say more about the divisions along racial or nationalistic lines rather than gender, but Angelo returns to the idea, albeit obliquely, a little later, when Marlow leaves New York for Atlantis.
Atlantis (formerly Atlantic City) is meant to be the polar opposite of Constellation, the genuine utopia to its superficial presentation of one. There are no phones or implants, no internet, and the outside world is barely accessible. It’s a place where everyone has decided not to be influencers or followers and to focus on their community. But there is a note of nostalgia in Atlantis that rings false to me, too, a yearning exactly calibrated to the Millennial experience. The internet has become scary, it’s true. What we thought would connect us and break down barriers of distance and understanding has now spawned Nazis, and incels, and government-toppling lies. The terrifying things are so much louder, right now, than the good ones. So why not go back to the time without phones or Twitter, but with all the other amenities of the modern world?
But when you throw out the internet, or even when you toss out social media specifically, you throw out all that good with the bad. And those good things still exist. People can still escape isolation and ignorance via the internet. Stigmas can be erased. Real relationships can form, not just the empty partnerships that Orla, Floss, and Marlow each experience. And the inverse is true as well: people can be petty, awful, and prone to groupthink without the internet or any promise of fame.
Surprisingly, Angelo has a hopeful, even innocent vision of the future, one that relies on diversity. A thinly veiled Trump character exiles all the undocumented immigrants to Atlantis, to be permanently deprived of American citizenship, along with political dissidents. The fact that everyone makes it work, then, is proof that acceptance, inclusion, and difference can triumph over tweetstorms and lies.
It’s optimistic, but is it realistic? I don’t know. Nor, I think, does Angelo. Her story is about white women, privileged women, and their experience with social media. She doesn’t get into the details of building an equitable, multiethnic society free of the internet, but otherwise completely modern and progressive. Her biggest argument is that only the absence of social media and internet fame makes it possible, but doesn’t show us the hard work of actually creating something. Followers wants to be intersectional but doesn’t seem to know how, which makes it feel naïve rather than truly hopeful.
Even if we concede that the book is about social media, and that focusing on utopia-building was never its aim, there is still also the narrowness of Atlantis’s success. Atlantis stands as a testament to the value of the ordinary. Marriage and children, homes and gardens, a local business or a waitressing gig or any job that brings you satisfaction: those are the facets of a good life, it claims. All of that can be beautiful and true (for some)—except for one thing. Where is the art?
Orla starts off as a budding novelist, but by the end she gives up on her book. If we are to understand that Orla’s drive to write was ultimately predicated on her desire for friendship and fame, then her relinquishing her goal is a strong and smart choice to make. It’s all right for dreams to change. But it’s hard to read it wholly as a victory when Floss also had a wonderful talent—singing—that she put aside. And Marlow, if she has creative dreams, hasn’t discovered them by the end. She’s happy in her world—again, a wonderful thing—but she pities her coworkers who go off on auditions. It’s possible that those coworkers are searching for empty fame, but Angelo doesn’t really address the other possibility, that some of them are consumed by the burning joy of creating.
And it’s true that artists are rarely content the way Marlow, Orla, and Floss are content by the end. Perfection is the great Muse behind all the muses, and she is unrelenting—and not in the way a studio executive or a mediocre parent or a social scene would be. Pleasing her is entirely different from seeking approval from others—only the artist knows when the work is done.
What art means and what artists are in the new world is left unexplored rather than actively dismissed, so I can’t say what Angelo thinks. I doubt that she, an author, is really trying to downplay the importance of self-expression or creation. (After all, Orla becomes a bookshop owner—literature is clearly alive and well.) But because the beginning of the book so clearly sets up the contrast between Orla’s pop work and her passion project, I have to wonder what conclusions Angelo means for us to draw. Sure, she wants us to step away from social media, but even if it were possible to rewind the clock on the whole enterprise, it probably wouldn’t fix everything as much as she claims. Removing screens and sharing platforms, isolating people and forcing them to work together, even traumatizing an entire generation doesn’t get at the underlying issue, which is that humans are communicators and humans are deeply flawed. We hurt each other, we hurt ourselves, and we try to talk and create our way back to normal. That Marlow, Orla, and Floss manage to achieve their new normal, and some measure of peace, makes for a lovely story. But they didn’t cure human nature, and even without phones and computers, all that messy hurt and healing is still there. Ultimately, Followers is personal and affecting, but doesn’t manage to be prescriptive.