Everyone Already Acts Like ‘The Circle’ Contestants on Social Media
A social psychologist explains why I see myself in the worst characters on Netflix’s new reality show
On Netflix’s new reality game show The Circle, contestants compete via a social media app to win $100,000 by outlasting their opponents. The players all live in separate units in the same apartment building, but they can’t speak to each other, video chat, or see each other in person — they can only interact using the Circle app. Based on what they see on their feeds, they continuously rank each other, vying to become “influencers” who have the power to “block” other players — that is, kick them out of the game.
So dystopian. So shallow. So what I needed.
I started watching, fully ready to judge all of the players for the way they selectively revealed themselves to each other, desperately fought for attention and affirmation, and welcomed cameras into the behind-the-scenes of their social media lives. But something kept nagging at me as the game played out: I was watching a microcosm of all of our worst social media behaviors — and identified with them way more than I thought I would. The contestants on the show interacted with the app and with each other in ways that reminded me of myself.
I may not be trying to earn $100,000 by winning social media, but I related to the way players curated their thoughts, images, and relationships to try to win the game. Erin A. Vogel, a social psychologist at Stanford University who studies the effects of digital tools on health, told me I’m likely not the only one: We all act like contestants on The Circle when we’re using social media.
One thing the players struggle with is deciding how much of themselves to share with the other contestants, and the same is true for many of us on social media, Vogel says.
In the first episode, Alana, a model, declares that she will hold back her bikini and lingerie pictures because “I don’t want girls to see me as a threat, and I don’t want to look as just a sex symbol to the guys.” She scrolls past a photo taken at the Playboy mansion, then chooses a less revealing photo of her in a polka-dot dress. “Let’s not show how frickin’ cute I am right away,” she says.
Vogel says The Circle showcases how we carefully shape the image we show the world on social media in pursuit of validation. “It does speak to what people are experiencing around wanting to be liked by others, wanting to be rewarded for what we post, wanting to be liked for who we are and the self that we’re portraying on social media,” she says. “These are real concerns that people have, whether consciously or subconsciously, when they’re using social media.”
Players on The Circle are also extremely judgmental. They constantly criticize other players based on the messages and photos they share publicly, which many of us do in real life, sometimes by even “hate-following” people we don’t like on social media. In one episode, a player named Joey exclaims, “Antonio, I still don’t like you!” from behind the safety of his television screen — which you know he would never say to Antonio’s face.
I was watching a microcosm of all of our worst social media behaviors — and identified with them way more than I thought I would.
“Social media (and internet communication in general) can make us feel like we’re not actually talking to a real person,” Vogel says. “Sometimes people say hurtful things online that they wouldn’t say directly face to face, because it doesn’t feel like they’re truly hurting someone when they’re communicating online.”
Vogel adds that the “relative anonymity” of social media influences how we behave in those spaces or in relation to them. “We feel less responsible for the consequences of our behavior when we feel more anonymous,” she says.
If the MTV show Catfish didn’t normalize the practice of presenting a completely different version of yourself online than who you are in real life, The Circle might. Players came onto the show with fully fleshed out fake personas and many felt no shame in their decision. And while most of us are more or less who we are in real life when we use social media, Vogel says, it’s not uncommon for us to also leave out enough of the truth about ourselves to create a different persona online.
“It’s also very easy to create different versions of ourselves using social media,” says Vogel. “We can construct our own identities on social media.”
But even players who were upfront about using their real identity in the game used their transparency to be manipulative. The best example of this is Shubham, the anti-social nerd whose whole strategy was to be “genuine.”
Vogel says a trend she’s noticed among real-life influencers is that many often share their highlights as well as their struggles in an attempt to appear more relatable. “It sounds cynical, but when someone is making money off what they’re posting on social media, that motive always has to be taken into consideration when interpreting anything they say,” she says. “So they might be being genuine, but there is that motive of wanting to make money.”
But it’s increasingly common among non-influencers, too, like me.
I always mix in my lowlights with my highlights on social media in order to give my followers a more balanced version of my life — or at least that’s how I like to think of it. But at some level, I know it’s all just a performance of my values around truth and honesty, just like others perform valuing tasty and well-plated treats (#foodielife).
Darn. I went into watching The Circle expecting to turn my brain off and enjoy trash TV and came out writing a think piece on it for OneZero. I first realized I had switched on a mirror reflecting my own social media behavior because of Joey, the viral star of the show.
Joey has amassed internet fame for the way that he dictates text messages to the app on the show — performatively aggressive and confident, like calling a jump shot taken from three feet away on a Little Tikes hoop. And while I don’t bombastically bark at my phone, I felt a seething self-consciousness watching him do it because I always wondered whether I sound like a complete douche when I’m dictating messages (for the record, my style is probably more like a mix of Seaburn and Shubham’s).
I don’t think I’ll change my behavior on social media much because of The Circle — there isn’t all that much to change, anyway — but I’ll sure as hell be a lot more neurotic about how I’m being perceived.