There’s no doubt social media has changed the way we communicate and interact with others. And the spread of the novel coronavirus has resulted in the cancellation of major events, the closing of public spaces and the rise of social distancing. 

With more of our interpersonal interactions being pushed online in this time of quarantine, uncertainties loom around the lasting social impacts.

A team of University of Washington psychologists is already studying the impacts of social distancing on adults in King County. The stress that comes from isolation can affect immune-system functions and increase anxiety; human connection is more crucial than ever.

Uncannily, as we look for ways to navigate our new state of social isolation, two of streaming behemoth Netflix’s biggest shows of 2020 have portrayed similar socializing scenarios — and they offer some things for all of us to keep in mind. 

After being intrigued by fanfare online, I watched Netflix’s “The Circle” for the first time a month ago. And one of my first thoughts was, “How do these people stay sane while staying inside for so long?”

“The Circle,” an American spin-off of a British series of the same name, debuted on Netflix on Jan. 1 to a steady rise of fans. The competition show isolates contestants within their own rooms in an apartment building, and they can only communicate with others via a computer program that transcribes their messages into text. Because of this streamlined form of communication, some contestants choose to take on fake personas to impress others. The group is periodically asked to rate their fellow contestants, with the top vote-getters becoming the “influencers” of the Circle, thus earning the power to eliminate other contestants.

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“The starting point I’d had is: What would a reality show look like where people never met face to face?” Tim Harcourt, “The Circle” showrunner, said in a New York Times interview.

Forced to stay inside for two weeks, cut off from all human contact, contestants are seen passing the time reading, playing with puzzles, cooking and, of course, competing in the complex popularity contest of “The Circle.”

In a recent interview with Vulture, contestant Joey Sasso gave his own advice on quarantine.

“Of course you’re going to get bored! Of course you’re going to get angry and be like, ‘Damn, I can’t take this!’” he says. “But there’s so many things around you, in terms of keeping yourself busy and working on something, that now it’s like, OK, let your imagination run wild. Look at all the things that you can do and get done.”

Maybe it’s the nature of the competition, but surprisingly, the isolation aspect of “The Circle” is very rarely an issue on the show. You would think the extreme circumstances — no phone calls, no internet access, going days without hearing another person’s voice — would drive these people to the brink of collapse, but they seem to only be blips on the contestants’ radars.

With the oversaturation of social media and other digital forms of connection, maybe humans have found ways to preserve ourselves without being face-to-face with others. 

“Love is Blind” is a dating show in which couples meet and get engaged while staying in separate rooms, referred to as “pods,” without seeing or having had any physical contact with each other. After getting engaged, the couples spend three weeks together to plan their wedding, and to see if the connection they built in the “pods” was strong enough to get them toward marriage.

The “Love Is Blind” pods shown from above. (Courtesy of Netflix)
The “Love Is Blind” pods shown from above. (Courtesy of Netflix)

When contestants are removed from the “pods” and forced to spend weeks living together, the pressures of the physical world start to unveil cracks in their relationships.

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It’s a given that the short 10-day window couples have to get to know each other before engagement plays a huge part in the success, or lack thereof, of their relationship, but it still raises the question: Can you truly form meaningful relationships with people without bonding in person? 

People already complain about the dating scene in Seattle, linking it to the city’s dreaded “Freeze” or the overrepresentation of tech workers on dating apps. And it’s all but certain that the need for social distancing will exacerbate these issues further.

If “Love is Blind” teaches us anything, it’s that physically being around others is crucial to our relationships. Not for the superficial reasons of knowing what others look like, but for the ways in which we communicate beyond words.

Where “Love Is Blind” differs from “The Circle” is that it looks acutely at how the physical world deeply impacts our relationships. And the abrupt contrast of going from not even knowing what their partners look like to planning a wedding with them illustrates the ways in which being around others changes our social dynamics.

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“We’re all watching this play out in real time, but generally what we observe in crisis is that we, as humans, are generally resilient creatures,” said UW graduate student and researcher Adam Kuczynski. “Maybe three weeks ago we considered texting and video-calling to be worse than seeing people in person. But at this time there’s a real possibility in incorporating these things to boost solidarity and connection with others.” 

Kuczynski also noted that isolation and loneliness don’t always correlate with each other. Feelings of loneliness are what can have drastic impacts on our physical and mental well-being, but even in isolation, we can still build connections to combat said feelings.

That’s exactly what “The Circle” and “Love is Blind” seem to indicate.

Of course our circumstances in real life differ drastically from circumstances on reality shows that are always somewhat of a “curated” viewing experience. We’re not competing for money or for love (although in some cases, like this unsanctioned spin-off “Love is Quarantine,” we are); our stakes are much higher while we’re facing a global health pandemic.

But we can do this, Seattle. Find ways to stay connected with others, in whatever fashion that may be. And if you’re looking for something to do, maybe try watching “Love is Blind” or “The Circle,” so long as it doesn’t feel too real.