“How far would you go to be popular on social media if $100K were at stake?” the host of Netflix’s reality show The Circle asks minutes into the first episode. Given the conclusive evidence that people will go to the farthest end of far to be popular on social media for absolutely nothing at all, I mentally buckled up. What wouldn’t a certain type of person do on screen for legitimate financial remuneration and a leg up on the cloud-based fame of an influencer? This might be good, I thought—by which, of course, I meant it might be the specific bad-good of a reality show that strings you out and along, until, hours later, you are crackly eyed and hyped to discuss the whole thing in heated, passionate detail. Instead, eight minutes into The Circle, I turned it off.
The Circle—unlike most Netflix series aired in weekly installments, finishing up with this week’s—is by far the most interesting television show I have ever seen that I could only bring myself to watch in single-digit increments (and, full disclosure, not even that many of those). In toto, it’s almost revelatory, but in specific, it’s a lot of watching someone who should be asleep saying, “Purple devil emoji. Send Circle. Thank you!” to a medium-size flat-screen TV mounted to the wall of an apartment with budget hipster décor. On mute, the show looks like security cam footage of people going mad: gesturing, yelling, laughing all alone in a room. It’s duh anthropology, telling us something so painfully true about how we live now that we are living it even as we watch, staring at people staring at screens.
The premise of The Circle, based on a British series that premiered in 2018, is convoluted, but the gambit is straightforward: stir up as much reality TV shit as possible using voice-to-text functionality. The contestants live in an apartment building where they each get their own unit—panopticons with throw pillows but no natural light— and are forbidden from communicating with one another except via the in-game social media platform known as the Circle. Housed in the aforementioned flat-screen, and responding only to voice commands, the Circle is where the contestant post their profiles and additional photographs, engage in group and private chats, and respond to the game’s occasional query, all while trying to become the most-liked player in the game.
Popularity is assessed by the other players. The contestants intermittently rank one another, at which point the two most popular decide which of the least two popular to send home. The rankings are determined by days’ worth of messaging, DMing, chatting, flirting, strategizing, assessing, manipulating, and back-stabbing. Every remark, every photo, every profile change is analyzed and dissected. To paper over the fact that nothing visually interesting is ever happening—on The Circle, tribal councils and secret meetings have become Slack channels—no one ever stops talking. No one ever seems to sleep either, unless the producers shut the Circle down for the night, like parents regulating a slumber party. The producers also intermittently punctuate events with group questions—the women who answers yes to the highly controversial “Is it OK to pee in the shower?” is immediately suspected of being a catfish—or activities like a “party” where they all dance alone, together, in their rooms. It’s like someone made a horror movie based on a Robyn song.
The participants can loosely be divided into three groups: people whose strategy is to be themselves, people whose strategy is to be themselves but whose self is not a coherent or likable package, and the people who are catfishing everyone else, like the guy using his girlfriend’s pictures and the lesbian posing as a hotter lesbian. Though they all profess to be jaded, suspiciously eyeing everyone else, they are—like the rest of us—sporadically innocent, occasionally conned, regularly wrong, and full of blind spots about nothing so much as themselves.
Their personalities are immediately recognizable, not so much from social media, but from reality television. There’s Joey, with his copycat Jersey Shore persona; Alana, the model who hates other women but says it’s because women worry she’s going to steal their boyfriends (trust me, it’s an archetype); Antonio, a cool everydude who wants to be known as a professional basketball player; the grouchy, sexy Sammie, who hates fakery; nice guy Shubham, an Indian American who thinks social media is “the bubonic plague” and wants to win by being his slightly nerdy self; and the polished and debonair Chris, who has come fully prepared with sequins and tag lines including “godfidence” and “I’m a real-ass bitch in a fake-ass world.” It’s a testament to the group’s eagerness, professionalism, and egomania that they can be so extra even after talking only to themselves for days and days.
Watching The Circle, reality TV’s influence on social media became plain to me in a way I had not previously considered. Most successful social media personalities use video (they can’t on The Circle, because it would expose the catfishers), but it is still a heavily image- and text-based mode of communication. On The Circle, this relative flatness obscures the reality TV archetypes the players—and presumably many, many more wannabe influencers—have so snugly slotted themselves into. If the players were to meet, even for a moment, they would all be so much more legible to each other, immediately grasping what their profiles, their photographs, their emojis were trying to put across.
That social media is so much worse at communicating this kind of dense contextual information is part of the thrill of it, and theoretically of The Circle. No one knows who you really are. But while the contestants are mysterious to one another, they are deeply un-mysterious to us. Even the charming ones are clichés. The flattening confusion of social media can make this setup into a game, but it’s hardly a show. It’s a bunch of reality TV players in search of a drama. Watching them try to bring it themselves, maintaining their energy levels, mythologies, and monologues while sitting alone in a room is poignant and pathetic. Human contact is, literally, so close—and yet so far! All alone, they can never forget the cameras are there, because they are solely responsible for entertaining them.
The whole thing vibrates at the awfultastic frequency of The Bachelor introductions—intermittently hilarious, cringey, and clueless—and that’s the appeal. For me, it was too much for not enough. Bring me heavily staged yet actual human interaction! Where we once had phony conversations, now we have “Send LOL.” Where we once had heavily edited, overly freighted facial expressions, we now have emojis. Where we once had tossed tables, we now have people saying out loud, to themselves, “I don’t like her.” Where we once had people hooking up, we now have players sitting in a room announcing to the camera, “This is getting flirty.” The Circle is a simulacrum of a reality show, which was itself a simulacrum of real life. I’m not saying it’s not telling us something important; I just couldn’t bear to watch.