From time to time, I’ve always fancied being someone else.
Not seriously, mind you, or for long – I’d hardly want to just throw away my carefully-constructed vibe of “Stephen Merchant’s significantly less impressive cousin” over nothing – but maybe just for a while, I could leave my identity at the door and try something new.
An hour, say, perhaps as part of the promotion for a new TV series hosted by Maya Jama and Alice Levine about anonymous contestants communicating solely via social media. You know, something random like that.
Well, earlier this month, my opportunity arrived… in The Circle.
Channel 4’s new reality show invites different contestants to spend three weeks living in a specially designed apartment block. They never meet their fellow TV stars, and can only communicate via a closed social network based on profiles they create.
Basically, they can be whoever they want to be.
And now, so could I.
Bundled off to a secret location and set up in a plush apartment, I was instructed on how to use the social network, before being asked to set up my profile and start interacting with four other anonymous players.
I tried to create a Circle profile for myself, but there was a problem: all the photos I was selecting weren’t like me at all. Yes they were technically of me, but they were all of me at my best (or what I subconsciously perceive to be my best) – doing something wacky, dressing smart, hanging out with cool people.
Frankly, this sterilised version of myself wasn’t what I’m like at all – I once left a free Star Wars lunchbox in my room for so long the food inside turned into black slime – and so I began to wonder, couldn’t I just make up an entirely new identity?
If I was going to cherry-pick the best parts of my life, why not create an entirely different cherry buffet of my own choosing?
Channel 4 agreed, which is how I eventually found myself in my Circle apartment, staring into the eyes of my other self: a 23-year-old intern called Imogen.
Based on the pictures the producers had gathered together from somewhere, Imogen was blonde, loved the gym, and definitely needed some advice about the sort of holiday pictures she’d submit for what was essentially a work project.
Here’s the profile I ended up putting together for Imogen, who I decided was just starting out in journalism while interning at a Specific Media Company (not my own), in order to make the photos Channel 4 had put together slightly more plausible.
With my profile created and everyone logged on, we kicked off.
The Circle is entirely voice activated, so you basically have to ask it to do everything. I started by looking at a few profiles to work out who Imogen would approach first. I began with something simple, contacting the only other man on the site (except me, but you know, I was Imogen) and playing dumb about his profile picture with a celebrity.
“Circle!” I commanded, “Message, ‘Did you really meet Piers Morgan? He’s so funny lol!’ – send.”
When the on-screen message misspelled the name as ‘Pierce’, it seemed like divine intervention, so I kept it.
Unfortunately, after barely a few questions the journalist began to ask if I was catfishing him – who knew being randomly messaged by a young woman speaking in broken sentences over the internet would send up some red flags? – so I had to play even dumber, telling him I wasn’t sure what catfishing was, and that I didn’t think I’d unlocked it yet.
He was temporarily put off the scent, but I’d now committed to making Imogen a bit of a moron, which rather limited my responses for the rest of the hour.
Soon the other people trying out the system joined the chat, and the real work began. Unfortunately, now I was stuck with the persona I had blithely created for Imogen, every single comment was a battle to say something interesting enough to not be voted off the game, while also being ‘bland’ enough to fit in with her character.
It was when we began to play a game of ‘Would you rather…’ that I truly began to unravel.
Question: ‘Would you prefer to write a piece that went viral with no love or effort put in, or one that you were proud of that not many people read?’
I might say the latter to make myself sound worthy, but would Imogen? What kind of journalist does she want to be? Is she even sure this career is for her? Does she have other dreams that this is just a distraction from? What happened to the little girl she once was?
Another question: ‘Would you rather be well-informed or popular?’ I can’t imagine anyone lacking self-awareness enough to actually say, “I want to be popular”, but would it be suspicious now if I didn’t, given the character I’d painted? Is Imogen trying to impress, or unthinkingly, casually speaking the truth because she doesn’t care that much about the internship her distant stepbrother pulled strings to get her?
Maybe she’d reply popular as a joke – but does the Imogen I’ve created have that particular sense of humour? Is it sexist to imagine she wouldn’t find it funny? Do I find it funny? Would I have thought it was funny if I wasn’t Imogen? But I’m not Imogen… so… does she think it’s funny even if I don’t?
Unhelpfully, it was at this point the producers told us all there was a catfish among us. Surely now I would be rumbled.
Except, no: suspicions had already shifted to Astrid, the Swedish septuagenarian nun turned journalist, whose backstory was a little outlandish now I think about it.
With Astrid now “blocked” from The Circle I was home free – and when we all finally met downstairs, the look of shock on the faces of the other journalists was all the more worth it. One even told me he’d thought I was quite fit from my photos, which I found oddly flattering, considering they weren’t pictures of me.
But was I a success in The Circle? Well, I’d argue no. While Imogen and her false identity managed to fool the other players, she also wasn’t one of the two contestants voted popular enough to become “influencers”. Depressingly, even with a completely fake identity to play with, I still couldn’t create a profile interesting enough so that people would actually enjoy talking to me.
I’d been so caught up in the thrill of my subterfuge that I’d gone down the shallowest possible route of online catfishing: a bespectacled man online pretending to be a good-looking young woman (again, when this is entered into evidence let the record show I didn’t pick the pictures, your honour) to try and win over random men.
In the TV version of The Circle contestants flit between young and old, across the spectrum of sexuality and even between versions of themselves, but there I was just trying to convince a building full of strangers that I was young and a bit dim.
Still, at least it gave me a special insight into what the real Circle contestants will be going through when the series begins this week. While I started to lose my mind playing the game for an hour, these wannabe players could be there for up to three weeks, living in uncomfortably hot apartments, trying to keep their minds straight as they fashion new identities for themselves in cyberspace.
Good luck to them. For my part, I’m happy just being myself again – even if from time to time, I’ll still wonder, ‘What Would Imogen Do?’
The Circle airs nightly from Tuesday 18th September at 9.15pm on Channel 4