I am always flattered when I am asked to review a book, whether the asking comes from the actual author, their agent, or their publicist. Normally I research books on Goodreads or Amazon and purchase them myself, or check them out at the library. Even if I decide not to cover a book, it is nice to be approached by someone who recognizes that this blog could be helpful to them and a good way for readers to find out more about their book. That is how I came about Former.ly: The Rise and Fall of a Social Network by Dane Cobain.
The Situation: Dan has just accepted a job at a new social media start-up called Former.ly. The concept is simple: users sign-up, update their profile and add notes, videos, etc, much like with Facebook. But no one can see anyone's profile except the user themselves. The only time anyone's profile goes public is when they die. Former.ly is for the living, in that they are able to see the profiles of their loved ones after they've died. But it is also for the dead, as they get to cater their profile and put up anything they want people to see after they're gone. Dan has already been warned about the crazy long hours and extremely high level of commitment that will be required of him. He's sure him and his longtime girlfriend will be able to take the strain, plus he really needs a job. Fortunately, because of his coding skills, Former.ly really needs him too.
The Problem: The long hours are going to be only one of many issues Dan will have to deal with at the start-up. While his other co-workers seem nice enough and are all good at their respective jobs, his bosses and founders, John and Peter, are demanding, constantly on edge, often rude, and always secretive to the point of suspicion. Not to mention paranoid. From the beginning, working at Former.ly proves to be a trial and it affects every aspect of Dan's life, especially his relationship with his girlfriend, which he wrongly assumed would be fine. But even without difficult bosses and a neglected girlfriend, there is also the site to worry about, which is always under constant threat from outside, both online and physically at the office. Even with heightened security and heavily guarded servers, the site is vulnerable and needs constant protecting. But it also needs to grow if the small group is going to be successful and eventually make any real money. Deals are made and things are happening that John and Peter are very tight lipped about, and Dan can ignore that for the most part, right up until people start coming up dead.
Genre, Themes, History: This is a fiction novel set in present day England for the most part, but later shifts to Palo Alto in California. The entire story is told from Dan's limited point of view, so his knowledge regarding Former.ly doesn't amount to much at first, but eventually he uncovers more and more about the site, the founders, and what is really going on behind the scenes. Former.ly chronicles the birth of a social networking site almost from the beginning, and follows it up until the ultimate goal of the public offering on the stock market. Cobain illustrates the high tempers, long and stressful hours, strained relationships, and intense meetings that come with starting an Internet company, while also showing just how far some are willing to go to "change the world," which really only seems to be code for "get incredibly rich."
My Verdict: Former.ly is a relatively short novel, coming in at under 200 pages, but there is a lot that happens, and it all happens fairly quickly. If I had one major bone to pick with the story it is that everything comes at the reader a little too fast. For me, it was like reading a long flash fiction story, which is actually great in that I was never bored or anxious to move on to the next thing. But ultimately I think that left some gaps that would have been worth taking a page or two to fill, while there were also some relationships between characters that I didn't quite believe because I couldn't see them developing so quickly. Now granted, I am coming off of reading The Shining, which is filled with the slow, masterful, suspense-building energy that only someone of Stephen King's ability could achieve, so maybe I'm not being entirely fair there. Even so, it is a fascinating story about a website with an equally fascinating idea behind it of leaving public profiles of the dead for their still living loved ones to see. Cobain certainly does not lack originality in his writing, and any reader looking for a good, quick, suspense-filled read will probably appreciate Former.ly.
Favorite Moment: I do appreciate that Dan was committed to keeping a written journal, a practise I truly believe is worthwhile for anyone, no matter what field they're in.
Favorite Character: It's hard to choose a favorite character since everyone involved with Former.ly makes a terrible choice at one point or another. Still, I suppose I will choose Felicity, who goes by Flick. She's smart, knows her stuff, and doesn't let herself get pushed around by the guys...too much.
Recommended Reading: For another quick read full of suspense, try the graphic novel Patience by Daniel Clowes, author of Ghost World.