The dangers of The Circle

Ryan Cahill

Ryan Cahill on the new reality TV show that normalises catfishing

21 September 2018 09:18

Being a 24-year-old introvert with little-to-no social life, I’ve naturally spent hundreds of hours watching mind-numbing reality television. I was tuned in when Makosi Musambasi asked for a pregnancy test on Big Brother; observed in horror as Gareth Gates lost to Will Young on Pop Idol; and cried with Zara Holland when she was stripped of her Miss GB title on Love Island. I should probably be a bit more embarrassed about being a reality TV connoisseur – but when this genre fills primetime slots on almost every major channel, there’s not really much time for regret.

My latest fix has been Channel 4’s new fly-on-the-wall series The Circle. Hosted by Alice Levine and Maya Jama, the show captures eight people living in the same apartment block who never see one another in the flesh. They can only communicate amongst one another via a custom-made social networking service, where they can depict themselves in any way they choose.

The aim? To be voted the most likeable person, in a bid to bag £50,000. It literally is a televised popularity contest, where catfishing is fair game, and you can totally fabricate your entire life story in order to be liked. Each day, the contestants vote for one another using an Uber-style one-to-five-star rating method, with the least popular person being booted off, or ‘blocked’ from The Circle, as they choose to say it. Yes, it’s basically an IRL episode of Charlie Brooker’s Black Mirror, with a little less blood – or at least we can hope.

Trailer for ‘The Circle’

On the surface, The Circle is box-standard millennial fodder. It doesn’t take a great deal of emotional energy to engage with; it’s light-hearted, and somewhat entertaining to watch as relationships develop and drama unfolds; and you can even see a little bit of yourself in at least one of the contestants taking part.

But as soon as you start really thinking about it, these hour-long episodes are basically a social experiment: an investigation into the dreary depths of social media and how it can be wrongly used to promote personal gain.

‘My sexuality is a very small part of what defines me,’ states one of the contestants in the pre-show confessional. As a self-admitted ‘100 per cent proud gay man,’ Freddie enters The Circle presenting as straight. ‘I’m hopefully gonna come out on top, even though I’m a bottom,’ he tells us.

A young Londoner named Alex is using pictures of his girlfriend in order to creating a popular character, as he says he never really was. And he succeeds. In the first week, his alter-ego Kate is voted as the most likeable contestant of the bunch. 40-year old Jennifer, a digital advertising executive, decides to play an oncologist, aka a cancer doctor. Early in the episode, she backtracks and says that to doing so would be ‘morally wrong’, so instead decides to turn into ‘just’ a junior doctor. There’s also Genelle, who refrains from telling the others that she has her new-born baby in the compound with her.

Its message, intended or not, is that you should mutilate parts of your personality in order to gain acceptance from your peers.

Every reality TV show comes with its controversies. But, while sex is rife on Love Island and race rows seem to be a fixture on Big Brother, The Circle enters uncharted waters. Highlighting just how paramount online networking has become to our existence, it implies that we no longer need to have real human contact and can co-exist purely in The Cloud. This lack of physical contact offers up the opportunity for greater deceit, which is clearly evident in The Circle; pretty much everyone is lying or has some kind of hidden agenda.

What’s worse, the series seems to say that this sort of lying is acceptable, or perhaps even necessary. Its message, intended or not, is that you should mutilate parts of your personality in order to gain acceptance from your peers: that you’re supposed to act straight because being gay is unlikable; that you should be conventionally pretty if you want to gain popularity; and that you have to be doctor-level successful in order to be respected.

The Circle has the potential to be really dangerous – particularly for the people in their early teens are consuming this show. While we revel in the stupidity of the programme and those involved, the series is quietly desensitising us to online deception, making us feel as though catfishing is totally normal and can used for personal gain. I don’t want to go as far as saying that this TV show is an advocate for fraud… but surely we’re not too far off?

What the show does do is offer up an insight into our evolving world – a society dependent on social media to the point where it’s almost encompassing our entire existence. If The Circle is a precursor of what’s to come, a fully immersive social media experience is just a few clicks away. The question is, will you be following?

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