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A young adult novel about social media that does not slip into clichés and extremes, ‘Populatti’ provides good food for thought in an entertaining book.

Book Review: ‘Populatti’ by Jackie Nastri Bardenwerper

PopulattiThe most magical aspect of fiction is its ability to create a safe environment in which we can closely examine important issues, however sensitive they might be. It was with the hope of finding between its covers a story that could create such an environment for a conversation on social media’s role in our relationships that I picked up Jackie Nastri Bardenwerper’s young adult novel Populatti.

I was not disappointed.

Granted, there were a couple of aspects that were not to my liking. Long, winding, descriptive paragraphs that broke the flow of the story peppered the book. The material aspect of the lives of the characters was overly detailed which weighed the story down a number of times. And the ending should have in fact been the lead into a final portion of the book; that is to say, the author ended the story where it should have instead picked up steam for a much grander finale.

Despite this, I enjoyed following the story of the secret social media platform called Populatti, created by a high schooler to allow a select number of members, referred to as popsters, to plan parties and get-togethers using a website their parents knew nothing about. Having moved from Boston a few years ago, 16-year-old Livi Stanley is in the enviable position of being able to leave behind the awkward nickname – and associated lifestyle – of “Drumstick.” Co-founding Populatti with her friends Crystal, Sammy, and Tara guaranteed a socially enviable high school period. Or so she thought, before rumors started chipping away at the safe pedestal she thought herself on.

Despite the Gossip Girl-like quality of the plot line, the book is remarkably free of unnecessary drama. Similarly, Livi and her entourage stay within the realm of normalcy, as the author chooses not to resort to an extreme characterization that would otherwise dilute the important concepts touched upon.

In the initial chapters of the book, the members of Populatti, who take a keen interest in each others’ personal lives, deemed a decision made by Livi unworthy, which lowered her approval rating. I have already written about the concept of a village – defined here as the “village” formed by the members of Populatti – where members keep each other in check. Villages were at first relatively small and everyone knew everyone. Some started snooping into one another’s lives which, to a certain extent, kept us from misbehaving, for a single misstep would be reported to everyone else. As our villages became towns and cities, it became impossible to know everyone, and anonymity gave us the space to do things we never did in our villages.

The online world has given even more reach to our anonymity, as well as new windows into the lives of others. Social media has in a way brought back the rules of the village: just as neighbours would spy on each other by peeping through their curtains, we spy on each other now through social media. The behaviour of the members of Populatti was kept in check because of their desire to maintain a high approval rating.

There are of course challenges to such an arrangement. For example, what happens when the approval of the “village” depends on values its individuals do not share? We can also be tempted to “gang up” on one another, influencing each other to do certain things under threat of losing status in the group. When the structures within the village become rigid, they can stifle creativity as the “right way” of doing things becomes quite narrow.

Following the rules can of course help a community maintain its cohesiveness which in turn allows for many a great thing to happen. But it’s not just about following the rules; the individual’s reason for following the rules also have an effect. For example, if I follow the rules of the road only for the sake of ensuring that I get from point A to point B, I am at risk of bending or even breaking the rules when it suits me – for example, when I am running late.

But what if I followed the rules because I want everyone to get from point A to point B safely? Because I have everyone’s well-being in mind, running late will not cause me to put them in danger. Once her status within Populatti is being challenged, Livi starts questioning why she followed certain rules in the first place; was it, as she initially thought, for the well-being of Populatti, or rather, was it for her own benefit only, masked as concern for the group?

No wonder then that the concept of the fragility of social networking is also touched upon, as is the fragility of friendships built on superficialities. Livi was friends with Crystal, Sammy, and Tara way before Populatti was created. And yet, when Livi’s status within the group is threatened, her three friends place more importance on Populatti. Shouldn’t friendship transcend labels? Why didn’t it?

An interesting phenomenon that is explored is perception. Livi is a good girl; she has a good relationship with her parents, helps take care of her younger twin brothers, studies, cleans up after herself, and is kind. But unbeknownst to her, she has been supporting injustice through her blind support of Populatti, which rules the behaviour of its members under threat of disapproval and, in extreme cases, termination. While her status was unchallenged and safe, Livi had no reason to question if the structure was, in fact, a just one, because it gave her what she needed. But once her status becomes shaky, and especially because it becomes so for unjust reasons, Livi is faced with the fact that she has supported something the nature of which does not match her personal belief system. This is of course a great way to begin a conversation about values which we might be unknowingly supporting.

Our perspective is in large part affected by the circles in which we move. Just as with Nina in the book My Epic Year of Rock, staying with a restricted circle of friends tends to limit our personal development. Just as Nina learned a lot about herself when she moved beyond her friendship with Brianna, Livi learns a lot about herself when she moves beyond the circle defined by Populatti.

As is often the case with books about such topics, there is a lot of potential that isn’t tapped, perhaps because it would have added another 50 or so pages to the book, perhaps for other reasons (a sequel, maybe?) Livi chooses not to go down the same path of backstabbing that threatened her status in Populatti. She also chooses not to go down a path of a dramatic reveal of the secret that is Populatti. She moves beyond these options to identify the real problem, which is not the social media platform in itself but rather, the way it is used. This makes for a great setting for an inspiring finale which is not delivered; rather, it marks the end of the book. And while I would have much preferred the author pushing the story past this point, Populatti remains a strong addition to any book club wanting to discuss the role that social media can play in our lives.

More information about the author is available on her official website.

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