The Circle is as endearing a story about social media that exists. It’s one where authenticity online triumphs over fraudulence, where catfishes have good reasons to fool you and first impressions give way to deeper connections. It’s a popularity contest, but one where the most real, genuine and generous participants are voted to the top.
The Netflix reality show phenomenon premiered in the U.S. on Jan. 1. It’s a competition where the participants—all in separate rooms in the same, posh apartment building—cannot meet in real life, communicating with each other behind walls both physical and those formed by the liberties of their respective online personas. The narrator of the show says the technology through which they communicate, called The Circle, is a voice-activated platform à la Alexa or Siri. In actuality, it’s basically producers typing up what each contestant says. That aside, the players interact via private messages, group chats, upload profile pictures, statuses and bios.
While some gamesmanship comes into play—after all, $100,000 is at stake—The Circle offers a fairly rose-colored view into socially networked communication. It’s social media without an algorithm, without ads, politicians or publishers vying for users’ attention. In a sense, it rips from the tenets of social media without addressing the more perverse facets of social media.
Whatever else it may be, The Circle is a hit. At its best, it’s a poignant reminder of the good that comes from global connectivity. And sometimes, good people are rewarded for being themselves online. There’s no better example of that than Joey Sasso, the winner of The Circle, who succeeds—despite initial stereotypes as bro-ey, flirty and altogether Jersey Shore-esque—through being authentically himself throughout the show.
Starting with a big “Heyyyy, buddy!” Sasso spoke to Adweek about how the show has changed his life, and his thoughts on the virtues and drawbacks of social media.
This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
It seems like you succeeded in The Circle by being yourself instead of playing the game.
Sasso: People ask me what was your strategy going in? And to tell you the truth, I didn’t have a strategy because I just always knew I had to be myself and I don’t want to overthink anything. The thing you can really get sucked into, which I did, is you’re trying to get who you are across on a platform where no one can ever hear your voice. It’s just plain old text.
And for the most part, you are who you say you are. But the one thing you didn’t mention was that you’re an actor. Why’d you hide that?
I just knew going in that, if none of us are meeting each other, it’s kind of difficult to say, ‘Hey what’s up I’m Joey Sasso and I’m being 100% who I am, but I’m an actor.’ A lot of people hear you’re an actor so they think you’re just acting with everything in life. I think I made the right decision because look at Alana, who basically got voted off because she said she was a model. People were just sort of like, ‘I don’t know if I buy her.’
But, as you say on the show, you are actually a bartender, right?
Yes. I’ve been a bartender while being a struggling actor since I was 18 and moved to L.A. You want to be an actor in this town, and you don’t know the right people or you don’t get that big break? You better know how to sling drinks.
What was your relationship like with social media before this show?
I was never huge on it. Facebook was for all my family and friends back home to stay in touch. Twitter, I had back in the day. I ended up erasing it because it just got to be too much—a lot of negativity. And then Instagram, I just loved it because I could follow so many movie pages and I’m a huge collector of film posters, pages like that. It was cool, but it was nothing compared to where I’m at now.
Living in L.A., I see so many of these real influencers and they just weren’t very kind people. So, I was just mainly like, ‘Well, this is all fake.’ But now I can say after the show, it’s been amazing because I really have met so many amazing people from around the world who are so kind. And I can really communicate one-on-one with them and for me, it’s like, ‘OK, this really gave me a platform to meet so many amazing people with beautiful hearts.’
In what ways do you think The Circle is actually like social media, and in what ways is it very different?
I think the show did a brilliant job of hitting home the society that we live in of people judging people off of pictures or a few texts. But also a good side of it is that people like me and Shooby became very good friends from two completely different walks of life. I think the show really hit both the positive and negative sides of the world we live in today.
How do you stay in touch with the entire cast? Is there a big group chat?
We’re all on a group chat on Instagram; we all talk all the time. After we finished the show, we weren’t allowed to follow each other on social media, post any pictures together. Basically we’re not allowed to say we knew each other existed. So after we finished filming, someone made a chat and added everybody in the entire group from the show. And we’ve just been on there ever since talking about everything from waiting for the show to come out, or the show’s trailer is dropping, or even today just checking in with each other, seeing what’s going on. It’s a daily chat that we’re all in.
Is authenticity still rewarded on social media, or is that something that just exists on The Circle?
100% it exists on social media, and that’s a great message people have taken from me and from the show, which is: I’m a firm believer, always be yourself. Do not ever try to change for anybody else. And man, the messages I get, I wish you could see: ‘How much you’ve inspired me to stay true to who I am’, or ‘I’m in a hard place right now’ or ‘I’m gonna reach out and talk to my family because we’re not on the best terms,’ ‘You made me realize how family loyalty is everything.’ It just really hit me really deeply. There’s nothing about any of that or this experience that has been lost on me.
So are you an influencer now?
I don’t think I could ever look at myself as an influencer. When people message me, they always say that they’re a fan. I always say I am not famous, I don’t have fans. I have a lot more friends now. And you guys are all—no pun intended—in my circle.