Shubham Goel is sheltering in place with his parents in Danville, but this isn’t the first time he’s been through a quarantine. He was on a reality TV show where isolation was one of the rules.
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In January, Netflix released season one of The Circle. The reality show is a popularity contest with a $100,000 prize. Players rank each other, but they never meet in person — they can only communicate through social media. In fact, for the most part, they can’t even leave their apartments.
“So usually about once or twice a day, you can leave to the gym or the balcony,” explains Shubham Goel. He was one of the 13 contestants on the show.
“You get used to having to stay in one area, just walking around the apartment a lot,” he tells me.
Players on the show hung out virtually, while sipping wine alone in their separate rooms. They set workout goals together that they tried to meet by themselves. And they got dressed up for dates that only happened online.
“Essentially, it’s a social experiment where you never meet each other,” says Goel. “You only interact on social media, and through that you’re building bonds that will decide who goes and who doesn’t.”
When filming ended, Goel went back to work as a data analyst, back to hanging out with friends in person, and back to being able to leave his home whenever he wanted. Back to normal life.
But by mid-March, it became clear things weren’t going to be normal anytime soon. The Bay Area went on a near lockdown, with the rest of California quickly following suit.
To Goel, the shelter in place order felt like a weird throwback, a reality show sequel that was taking place in real life.
“I think the thing that surprised me is how this just came really quickly after The Circle,” Goel tells me. “Because we’ve been in that situation where you can’t leave the premises. I think that’s the most shocking thing.”
The biggest thing that quarantine has in common with The Circle? Most contact with other people is limited to the internet.
You might think someone who would go on a reality show about online communication would be a big fan of it. But Goel doesn’t really like social media. Actually, he kind of hates it.
On The Circle, Goel described social media as a “modern-day bubonic plague” and “the devil in all its forms.” He even ran for governor in 2018 on a platform of banning social media in schools.
“Social media companies were using this random effect that just draws on your anxiety to get people addicted to their platforms,” Goel says. “It’s essentially the same thing that the slot machines use, where we go on these sites because you might get a new friend request, you might get new comments. It can be bad for people, especially when there’s no moderation.”
Goel thinks that the fact that he isn’t completely obsessed with social media is part of what’s helping him stay positive during the quarantine.
“Even if you really love social media, which I know a lot of people do, try to balance your day with stuff to do, and I think you’ll feel better,” he advises. “Watching movies, I love to play video games, board games, ping pong — I’m playing a good amount of ping pong. Not as much as The Circle, but I still play a bit.”
But Goel does need some human contact. And the shelter in place rule means that it has to be on social media. So he looks back to what he learned on The Circle.
Even though he went into the show loathing social media with a passion, he actually ended up having a pretty good time. He made real friendships, even though they couldn’t see each other or even hear each other’s voices.
“We’re really close still,” Goel says of the other players on the show. “You can build bonds, genuine bonds, through social media. I did it on The Circle, so I know it’s true.”
And he thinks that social media — in moderation — can play that role for others during the quarantine, too.
“It is our only way of communicating with the world. We are alone, right? So you don’t want to feel lonely. So it can help with that because you can reach people,” Goel says. “But it also amplifies your anxiety on that end. So it’s like a catch-22.”
That anxiety, about not being able to see family and friends in person, can make it hard to get beyond superficial conversations.
“We tend to just interact with people on a surface level. We’re all guilty of it. Where you say, ‘What’s up?’, ‘Not much,’” Goel explains. But he adds that there are ways to feel close to people, even when you can’t be close to them.
“Don’t be afraid to show a little more than you’re used to, and it doesn’t have to be anything extreme,” he suggests. “If you’re feeling bad, just tell them you’re feeling bad. That’s how the bonds form. I think humans are very receptive to that, when it’s deeper than the usual. So I think what you give is what you’ll get.”
For now, Goel is focused on finding balance.
“I think just to realize what social media is and everything’s good in moderation,” he says. “And just remember that the quarantine will end eventually.”
Until it does, we can keep in touch with what’s important by going online. And, just as importantly, by logging off.