Social Media Is The New Reality TV

If you haven’t heard yet, there’s a brand new reality tv show called The Circle that aired on UK’s Channel 4 last week and lo and behold, people are already outraged by it. Welcome to television programming in 2018.

The Circle’s premise is a game show where being liked is everything, with a bunch of players holed up in a housing complex making friendships, flirting and bitching it out to be the winner of a £50,000 prize. It’s essentially the Big Brother format, but there’s a modern-day societal twist because the contestants are all housed in separate apartments and will never meet face-to-face during the show.

Instead, their interactions will only exist on a specially designed social media platform where they’re encouraged to shape, bluff or completely distort their persona in a desperate bid to be ‘liked’ by their fellow contestants, the player who is ‘liked’ most wins this nightmarish popularity contest. Sound familiar?

It should do. Not only is it a jazzed up and plugged-in version of Big Brother for the Snapchat generation, but the concept is also conspicuously indebted to Charlie Brooker’s Emmy award-winning Black Mirror series. Particularly the fantastic episode Nosedive, in which people live in a world where social interactions are constantly being rated (that dreaded down-rating tone!) and every individual has an overall rating which has a real-life influence on their socioeconomic standing.

The common ground these shows share is an exploration of the very real consequences of social media and how us Humans are so easily beguiled by its capacity to curate an idealised version of ourselves, or you know, create a completely different persona altogether.

The Circle immediately ignited controversy by featuring a player who’s gambit is fabricating an online identity in which she presents herself as an oncologist that treats cancer. This is, for obvious reasons, a despicable and manipulative tactic to win internet brownie points on the show and, let’s be honest, probably the very reason why Channel 4 picked such person in auditions. Controversy is their currency, after all.

The thing is, in reality, there’s little to nothing preventing someone from doing the same sort of thing on LinkedIn or Facebook either, which may also be the poignant comment C4 producers wanted to make on our digital society. Maybe.

The question is, where does the responsibility in keeping check on this online activity lie for our real social networks? Do the tech companies need to police it better? Do we need to take a closer look at home to why people create fake online personas? Or perhaps we just rely on the discerning Nev & Max from MTV’s Catfish to oust these online charlatans for the delight of the viewers at home. It’s certainly a tricky topic and judging the people behind fake or augmented online profiles is a moral minefield.

However, one intriguing development we’ve seen in recent months is that the tech giants behind our real-life social media platforms, which over 3 billion of us use, have started to implement features specifically designed to curb usage of the very applications they created.

Which is sort of bizarre when they look to gain so much advertising money from our mindless scrolling, albeit it comes across as a solid PR move. Facebook-owned Instagram launched a ‘Time Well Spent’ tool which allows users to see just how long they’ve spent scrolling through doggy snaps and memes, but also self-manage daily limits on how long they can spend in the app.

The two leading mobile operating systems, iOS and Android, have also baked similar tools into their latest updates, giving users to ability to self-police their time on their devices. It’s encouraging to see the tech companies feeling an obligation to help us better understand our relationship with social media – it’s a start at least.

So yes, The Circle is a sensational take on the issue of social media and sure, it offers a cheap hit of reality entertainment in the gap that Big Brother left. But the producers came up with the idea for reason, and that’s because it’s something almost all of us find relatable. The jury’s still out on how the balance of our digital lives will affect our IRL lives, but the needle seems to be tilting ever further towards our virtual selves.

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Simon Franklin
Simon Franklin

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