The Circle was good reality television – but a bad reflection of social media

Channel 4’s The Circle has been applauded for its insight on the dangers of social media. However, the world it depicts is far from the reality of the modern digital experience.

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It might have been To Catch A Predator, but was more likely Catfish, that got television executives frothing at the mouth. To Catch A Predator, the show in which presenters pursued paedophiles lurking online, often pretending to be someone they weren’t, and Catfish, the documentary (and eventually hit television show) about a woman who made an online network of fake people to trick a man into a romantic relationship, are Noughties’ creations made for the digital age. The basis of both can, effectively, be boiled down to “This person online is doing something sinister, and is not who they say they are.” They were inherently dramatic; often playing on the dramatic irony of letting the viewer in on the secret to make them squirm, and were unique for their time, which translated into viewers and financial returns. In a time where social media was still a big unknown for many, it felt like looking under a rock and coming across new, horrible insects each time a new show came along.

Channel 4’s The Circle is very much in the same vein, albeit showing to a more digitally literate audience. The show involves contestants isolated in individual flats for three weeks, only able to interact with other contestants via the show’s bespoke social media platform. The aim of the game is, simply, to make yourself the most popular person on the platform in order to win a hefty £75,000. The real draw for the audience is that users were encouraged to catfish other players, slang for pretending to be a different person online, in order to develop a persona they thought would win over the affections of their peers.

It became an instant hit over its three-week run (with a catfisher ultimately winning the top prize), so popular that minutes after the final episode aired last night, Netflix announced that it would be adapting it into a series across three different countries. The show has been lauded for being a modern, “edgy” take on our “social media obsessed” culture, and for taking our digital lives and accurately applying them to reality television.

Since the finale, people have been tweeting about what they feel they learned from watching The Circle, predominantly that “you can’t trust people on social media” and to “expect the unexpected” when it comes to who you interact with online. However, what made fans like The Circle really had nothing to do with social media. And in fact, what made it so popular was the antithesis of the average online experience today.

“I think it doesn’t work when it’s in isolation,” writer and The Circle-fan Joshua Zitser told the New Statesman. “Nobody is so dependent on social media like they try to depict.” And indeed, The Circle acts as though living in a one bedroom flat, cut-off from friends and family, with your only points of contact being a poorly made social media platform and a producer coming in to make sure you’re okay is entirely normal. The same line of logic would tell you that The Biggest Loser is a good place for weight-loss tips; The Apprentice proves that selling enough burgers in Canary Wharf means you’re a good businessman; and Love Island is a healthy depiction of how we find a partner.

“They’ve created a world that is so carefully contrived and isolated from reality that it works for the purpose of a ‘social experiment’,” Zitser said. “But to apply it to reality is naive because it’s so far removed from the way in which the majority of us actually ever use social media.” The world the producers concocted in The Circle is just like any other alternate reality game show, where what makes the show interesting is that it isn’t like reality. What makes it interesting is that it’s a warped version of real life, if not a depiction of reality entirely divorced from it.

As Mic Wright wrote for the New Statesman last month, “As far back as the BBC's notorious Joy of Text night of programmes in 2001, TV commissioners have been trying to make what we do on our phones into compelling television.” And that’s, really, what should be gleaned from The Circle. Gripping, compelling, and, ultimately, popular, it teaches us plenty about how well dramatic irony sells in the world of nightly reality television – and how we’re likely to keep seeing social media as a theme in television production well beyond the Netflix reboot. But in the end, The Circle is more about recreating the noughties cliches in Catfish than it does the reality of modern digital life.

Sarah Manavis is the New Statesman's tech and digital culture writer.