‘The Circle’ is a new ‘reality’ show currently airing on Channel 4 in the UK…. It is quite literally a ‘popularity contest In which 8 contestants compete over a 3-week period to be the most popular person in ‘The Circle’. The most popular contestant at the end wins £50K.
The rub is that there is no actual face to face interaction: competitors set up a social media profile (this can be anything from a more genuine portrayal of themselves to an outright catfish profile) and interact with all other competitors via a specially designed social media interface, called ‘the circle’.
The Circle is basically like Watts App – in addition to the profile, the contestants can have private 1-1 conversations, various ‘wittily named’ group chats, and whole ‘circle chats’. The circle also provides news feeds from the outside world, which competitors are expected to discuss.
Every few days, the competitors rate each other (a five star, Trip Advisor style rating) – the top two or three become ‘influencers’ and get to decide who to ‘block’ from the bottom three….. whoever is blocked gets kicked out and replaced by a new circle member.
Competitors are confined to an apartment room for the duration of the competition and have no contact with outside world, except for the snippets of news mentioned above.
The programme says of itself that it is…. ‘Timely and provocative [and] will ask questions about modern identity – how we portray ourselves and communicate on social media’…. but does it?
A few sociological observations…
An easy ‘critical starter’ is to focus on just how unrepresentative of the wider UK population the circle contestants are. They are all young (typically in their 20s, with the odd ‘young’ 30 year old), but they do not represent young people in Britain today: nearly without exception the contestants are confident, outgoing, party-types, clearly selected for their ability to ‘entertain’ on camera. Then (OF COURSE?) there’s the fact that that most of them are very attractive.
I guess it’s no surprise that all of the contestants are very comfortable interacting via ‘The Circle’, that is comfortable interacting blind (as in not face to face) with communication in short, sharp bursts, and sentences of more than 20 words are rare and emojis and hashtags being very much the norm, as is the practice of ‘leaving someone hanging’ by signing off when they’ve had enough of a private chat.
Interestingly, most of the contestants have chosen to be (more or less) themselves. Only two contestants (out of about a dozen I’ve seen) have gone for a virtual sex-swap, and one more a sexuality swap, everyone else is ‘more or less’ themselves. They know how exhausting it is ‘putting on an act’ for any length of time. In short, there simply aren’t that many catfish!
Alarmingly, the contestants are very comfortable with rating people quantitatively…. they do so, and give their reasons, with relish. And they seem to love it when they come out on top.
The contestants also know this is a game and are comfortable with this fact that this is a game…. which is why I think parallels with Charlie Brooker’s Black Mirror aren’t justified. It’s not a harbinger of a dystopian future, they know it’s just a bit of fun, even if the experience is stressful.
Ultimately ‘The Presentation of Self In Every Day Life‘ is the most relevant theory to draw on to analyse what’s going on here… clearly these contestants are putting on masks, not only via their Circle social media profiles, but also when they’re acting on camera for the C4 audience – let’s not forget, most of these contestants are media-personality wannabes!
Written for Educational Purposes!