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Reality TV contestants trapped in the vicious circle of social media; Chilling dystopia or just self-aware irony? Media expert Dr John Jewell sets out to square The Circle.

Byline: JOHN JEWELL COLUMNIST OpinionWM

HOT on the heels of the new series of Big Brother (and the announcement that Channel 5 is axing the series after its current run) comes Channel 4's latest reality TV show, The Circle, which launched on Tuesday night.

On the face of it, it seems another variation on the Big Brother formula - strangers are thrown together in a modern living space to compete in a popularity contest for up to PS50,000. But although the contestants are in the same building, they are in fact living alone in separate apartments. As the programme's publicity states, they interact "exclusively through a bespoke voice-activated social media platform called The Circle".

That's the unique selling point - traditional, not to say natural, modes of communication are impossible. They do not physically meet and the only interaction allowed is through profiles created via a specially designed app.

The Circle, says Channel 4, enables competitors to "chat, make friends, argue and maybe even fall in love. Building their own profiles, contestants will only get to know each other from what they choose to reveal via The Circle. They will be able to communicate as a group or individually, allowing cliques to form and private allegiances to be made".

The producers are clearly hoping for all manner of drama as contestants seek to avoid being judged the least popular by their housemates. Whoever garners the fewest "likes" will be removed from the game over a period of three weeks.

It's a fact that self-promotion is positively encouraged and perception is more important than reality. As contestant Dan, 28, points out at the start of the show, social media is the way we want the world to see us. It's not about how we really are.

According to The Circle's creative director Tim Harcourt: "It used to just be film stars, rock stars and narcissists who would do anything for the adulation of thousands of strangers. Now we've all caught the bug. So many of us do bizarre things or become very different versions of ourselves just to be 'liked' online.

"And whilst sometimes social media seems ridiculous and shallow, at other times it becomes a force for positive change. This series promises to explore all of this in a fashion that is dramatic, funny, warm and compelling."

Well, maybe. If the first episode is anything to go by, the contestants are simply Big Brother wannabees with a heightened sense of the power of social media in their lives. That's to be expected, but there is nothing really new on offer. The repartee veers predictably between the sexually explicit and profoundly mundane. The depressing shock at the end of episode one is that Alex, a man in reality who pretends to be a woman for The Circle, is voted the most popular person.

That is not to say that some of contestants are not charming, vivacious, good-looking (of course) and selfaware. It's just that, as The Guardian's Hannah J Davies has pointed out, after just one episode the absurdity of online interactions is laid bare.

What does this say about the way in which society is heading? Are we to encourage and laud deceit as a way to financial reward? Already complaints have been made about the fact that Jennifer, 40, is posing as a 34-year-old oncologist because she reckons being thought to be a doctor is the best route to success.

Comparisons with Charlie Brooker's dystopian TV drama Black Mirror are just crying out to be made. In one particularly prescient episode, people's lives are public property and everyone gets the chance to rate everyone else. A rating on a scale of one to five can hugely affect their standing in society. When the main character's social media rating drops to zero, she is sent to prison.

Yet part of me is loath to take The Circle too seriously. The participants are, as I've said, self-aware and clearly much more in control of the situation than perhaps many of my demographic would care to admit.

And perhaps there's the rub.

Could it be that those of us over say, 40, are simply ignorant of the online lifestyles of those younger than ourselves? Ignorant and unwilling to acknowledge that the nuances and complexities of this brave new world are better understood by those who have grown up knowing no different? After all, hasn't every generation throughout history denigrated the capabilities of the one to follow? As George Orwell wrote: "Every generation imagines itself to be more intelligent than the one that went before it, and wiser than the one that comes after it."

In the end, The Circle, like all commercial television, is in the business of making money and attracting advertisers. Mobile phone network Giffgaff is its official sponsor and Alice Tonge, head of Channel 4's creative division, has said: "Social media is now embedded in everyday life and can be used to create the ultimate disguise, giving people the chance to be whoever they want to be. This idea sits at the heart of our campaign to create excitement and build up for the new series."

The circle is closing in. | Dr John Jewell is director of undergraduate studies at Cardiff University's School of Journalism.

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Publication:Western Mail (Cardiff, Wales)
Date:Sep 21, 2018
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