The Circle: Aren’t we all catfish?

From: channel4.com

We couldn’t get into Love Island, have never watched Big Brother, and we ducked the Great British Bake Off. But after trying out the first couple of episodes on a friend’s recommendation, we have been sucked into Channel 4’s new social media experiment, the Circle.

We used to wonder how people found the time for Love Island every night, but if there’s a will there’s a way, and we have faithfully watched every episode to date, and will be tucking in with duvet and projector to watch the final on Monday evening.

If you’re not familiar with the premise of the show, it isn’t too hard to get a hold on: players live in their own apartments and can communicate with each other only by text messages, which they speak out loud and are typed out on the game’s own social media network, the Circle. Players rate each other every couple of episodes, those with the lowest ratings run the risk of being blocked from the Circle, i.e. kicked off the show. Of course there are a few variations on this to keep you interested, and some games thrown in to generate drama.

The players are free to be whoever they want to be. They each get a limited number of profile pictures, which can be anything or anyone. Alex, for example, has used his girlfriend’s photos and invented a female persona called Kate. Or Freddie, who is himself, apart from the fact that his Circle persona is straight.

Obviously, there’s only so much that can happen in a set up like this. There’s private chats, various group chats, occassional newsfeed updates to engineer the drama, and a lot of watching people live in a spars luxury apartment, doing what people do when they’re using social media: reading, cooking, farting, going to the gym, completing jigsaws (?).

Some how it’s surprisingly compulsive watching for what is otherwise quite a boring reality show. It does raise, however, some interesting questions in our age. At least, thinking about these ideas is how we’ve justified it to ourselves that we have devoted so much time to the show.

Firstly is one of the main issues at hand when we talk social media, which is authenticity. The players are able to choose if they present a character or play the game based on their real selves, so which method is more successful? The findings from the Circle are contradictory.

The two most popular players, Sian and Dan, are also the most authentically themselves. Yet the show’s resident catfish Alex has also survived the popularity contest, despite raising suspicions from nearly all the other players. His persona for the game, Kate, is a combination of Alex’s personality and his girlfriend’s profile pictures. The other players have felt out the fact that “Kate” doesn’t seem to have much of a backstory, can’t properly engage in girl-chat, and has pictures which are “too perfect” and too boring. In a sense, they have sniffed out the fake profile.

The difficulty of pretending to be another person has taken its toll on Alex. It’s not as easy as you might think to stay in character online and to remain consistent. He got a red-flag for not giving Little Mix as one of the answers in a Circle game, something which the other players thought she should know. Incidentally during this game, another catfish Sinead was caught out for knowing too much about the girl band. As 65 year-old Christopher, Sinead gave the game away when he was prompting Kate with information about the recent Little Mix tour.

And even though he’s come this far as Kate, Alex is finding it difficult to keep up the pretence when the other players are so genuine in their friendships. Whereas in the online world we never have to meet each other if we don’t want, in the Circle the players are acutely aware that they may meet at the end of the game, and his deception will be exposed. Real catfish don’t (always) have to face that reality.

At this point, the other 3 finalists have clocked that Kate is someone other than Kate, and yet it doesn’t seem to matter. Do we actually mind too much if people aren’t who they say they are? Dan, who has developed a close friendship with Kate, will probably be gutted (it’s one of the shows most anticipated reveals), but by-and-large they have accepted that Kate is not Kate, and don’t really care anymore.

It reflects our own time that the players feel they have formed friendships of such depth and authenticity, without ever having met in the flesh. The Circle seems to confirm that in many ways we have superseded the need for actual interaction, and can fulfil many of our social needs through online media. Indeed, the players are very trusting that everyone is who they say they are, and they have a real sense that they know each other and have shared the journey of being in the circle.

The catfish phenomenon obviously poses a question around authenticity on the internet. But are the “real” players any different? The catfish is just on the extreme end of the spectrum, but all the players (and all social media users) manipulate their accounts to their perceived advantage. In the beginning we watch them choose thier profile pictures, and hear their thought process as to what they think they are saying, how they want to come across. In a sense, aren’t we all catfish?

Whereas we can normally only guess how recepients are responding to our messages on the other side of the screen, the Circle gives us an insight into how the players are responding and thinking in real time. We see the games of instant messaging play out before us. Who has not sent a message and received a single laughing/crying face emoji in return, and then thought up a short essay on what it could mean? In the Circle, the omnipotent viewer gets to see the thinking behind the messages.

What is clear is that social media have changed the way we engage with other people. The online world hasn’t transformed who we are, but it has given us new ways of relating to each other, and with that the ability to control and curate the image and personality that we present.

We’re just looking forward to an end to the compulsive watching of this mindless social media reality show. Hopefully there won’t be a second series.