The Circle and information literacy

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So a while back I had a week off and since there weren’t as many places to go or things to do as there usually would be, I spent a lot of time in front of the television, trying out some shows I wouldn’t normally spend much time on. That’s how I ended up losing three days of my life to Netflix’s The Circle.

If you’ve never heard of it, The Circle is a reality competition series based on a British show of the same name. In this game, the players are isolated from each other until the very end. They communicate only through the show’s social media platform, which as you might suspect is called…the Circle. The trick is that while some players play as themselves, using their own pictures and profiles which basically reflect who they really are, others play as catfish, using pictures and profiles that are not their own. The show is basically nothing but a bunch of people living by themselves in cute little apartments, alternately talking to themselves and shouting at their screens. Which, come to think of it, pretty accurately describes my life right now. Go figure.

If none of this sounds particularly compelling, just know that The Circle is carefully engineered to be as addictive as possible and that engineering very much worked on me, someone who doesn’t watch a lot of reality competition shows. It helped that in the American version the cast was, for the most part, surprisingly likeable and earnest throughout, even the players who posed as other people. (The French version, which I’m about halfway through at the time of this writing is very different in this respect. There are still some likeable players but their approach to the game is, shall we say, much different from the American players. These differences make it all the more interesting to watch.)

So why am I writing about The Circle here?

Because somewhere amidst all the likes, status updates, and group chats, I started thinking that this trashy but fun show might actually have some interesting connections to information literacy. In fact, I think my case here might be even stronger than when I’ve tried to connect pop culture I love (like Newsies and Hedwig) to info lit in the past.

Let me explain.

The ACRL Framework makes it pretty clear that information literacy is, in many ways, just as much about being a creator of information as it is about being a user of information. Not everyone fully agrees with that and, traditionally speaking, information literacy instruction does tend to focus a lot more on the “using” part of information than on the “creating” part. But the connection is there.

For many people, especially students, one of the primary ways they create and share information is via social media. The Circle dramatizes the social media information creation process that so many of us engage in. And it does so in a way that brings up interesting questions about our practices and responsibilities as information creators.

Which is to say, the catfish in the game are deliberately trying to trick their fellow players by posing as other people because they think it will help them win the game. The interesting thing to watch when it comes to the catfish (in both the American and French versions) is that some of them are a lot better at posing as someone else than others. The ones who are good at it put a lot of thought into what their profiles should look like and how they interact with others. When others become suspicious that they might be fake, they know exactly what to say or do to direct them away from this line of thinking.

Not all of the catfish have clear reasons for choosing to adopt a fictional persona for the game, but some do. One male player poses as a female because, as he claims, he wants to see what it’s like to actually be able to express emotions in a social space. Two female players whose appearances differ from certain cultural beauty standards keep their biographical details and approach to personal interactions the same as they would if they were playing as themselves but use pictures of women who are closer to the Hollywood ideal because they feel that by doing so other players will be more likely to interact with them in a positive way.

In the real world, catfishing is thought of as an activity that people engage in because they want to take advantage of others in some way, by lying about who they really are or what they really look like. Here, the catfish players are clearly lying to the others in the hopes that it will give them some sort of strategic advantage but digging into their stated motivations is interesting because in most cases…they’re exactly right. Of course, there’s no way of knowing how the game would have gone for them if they had presented themselves more truthfully, but the fact that many of their predictions about how they’ll be treated because of the attractive pictures they’re using and the flirty personas they’re sometimes adopting says a lot about the choices we sometimes make when we create and share information.

More interesting though is the players who play as themselves. Because though they aren’t necessarily lying about who they are, they are all just as strategic about their choices when it comes to what pictures they use, what they say in their interactions with others, and what details they share about their respective lives. Except for the faces and the names, the profiles they’re using are no more truthful than some of the catfish who are playing as basically themselves but with a different picture.

Again, The Circle is a game so of course everything is going to be dramatized and everything is strategic. But when the players think aloud about what picture they want for their profile and the exact wording of a response to another player’s question, what they articulate is not far off most people’s thinking process when it comes to how they present themselves in a social, online environment. They may claim to be playing as “just themselves” but if that were really the case, they wouldn’t have to put nearly as much thought into the choices they’re making.

So what does this say about the information about ourselves that we create and share with the world and what our responsibilities are? We may claim there’s an ethical responsibility to present the “true” versions of ourselves when we’re online but when it comes down to it, no one really does that. So what are the advantages of the strategies we use? Why do we feel the need to be at least a little bit fake? And where exactly is the line between presenting a carefully curated version of ourselves to the world and catfishing?(1)

Like I said, The Circle isn’t meant to reflect real life but I do think it’s interesting as a dramatized version of the information creation process as it pertains to social media. In the height of my addiction to this show, I seriously thought about whether I could create an extra credit project around the series but it’s probably better if instead I just point students to it as a piece of entertainment that happens to surface some interesting questions about information creation. Something to keep in mind for the future.


(1) Okay, probably it’s in using someone else’s picture or name as your own but you know what I mean.

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