7 Lessons for Academics Wanting to Use Social Media in 2023

What can we learn from watching reality tv? Well, quite a bit. Today I’m going to talk about 7 things you can learn from The Circle, a reality television show about social media on Netflix.

Hi there, I’m Jennifer van Alstyne. I help professors feel confident when showing up online. I empower them to build an online presence so they can help more people with their research and teaching. Welcome to The Social Academic, my podcast about your digital footprint as a professor in Higher Education.

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Now, if you’re on my mailing list you may have seen my email about my application to be on The Circle Netflix. If you’re watching the new season, you already know that I did not make the cut. But I love this show, and learn so much from watching it. So, I’m excited to talk with you about The Circle today. I still have my fingers crossed that I’ll appear on a future season. Seriously, my goal is to be on a Netflix show in my lifetime.

Before we get started, I want to invite you to join my Online Presence Program for professors. This program is designed to help you build confidence while taking control of your digital footprint in academia. I’m here to help you share your teaching and research with the world.

What is your online presence? It’s what people can find about you when searching your name online. It’s what people can discover about your research and the work you most care about. I’d love to help you have the online presence you deserve in 2023. Let’s talk about how my Online Presence program can help you.

First, let me tell you a little bit about The Circle because I know some of you may not have watched this show before. By the end of this episode of The Social Academic podcast, you’re going to go and watch The Circle. This is one of my favorite shows, and I hope you love it too.

The Circle Netflix is a competition reality show where strangers move into an apartment building where they can only communicate with each other through a closed social media network called The Circle. Each person gets their own Circle profile where they can share a bio and a profile photo. Here’s the thing, if you’re in The Circle there’s no way to tell if the other contestants you see there are real, or if they’re catfish. Some people enter The Circle as themselves. Other people enter The Circle with a fake profile they think will advance them further in the game. The winner of The Circle gets a cash prize and bragging rights.

I love reality television. I especially enjoy watching The Circle because contestants build real relationships through chat, interactive games, and virtual parties. Because contestants interact with The Circle by speaking their messages out loud (it’s a voice-activated social media network), we get to see their reaction to the Circle Chat  when a new post is shared. They also verbalize their thinking before sharing their own messages in the chat.

This will be a fun episode of The Social Academic, so pop some popcorn, take a seat, and listen up. We’re about to dive into 7 things you can learn about social media and building relationships from watching The Circle on Netflix.

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1. People don’t know anything about you when they come across your profile for the 1st time. Have photos on your profile that show your personality.

When you enter The Circle you don’t know anything about the other contestants. If you’re coming on the show, you’re aware that there are other people in the same apartment building you are. But, each of you walk into your own uniquely designed apartment. You get a few minutes to explore before The Circle sends you an Alert.

The 1st Alert invites contestants to set up their profile on The Circle. That way, other contestants in the building can learn a little bit about them when they engage in conversations in the Circle Chat.

Choosing what to include on your profile is so important. The people who are visiting your profile don’t know anything about you. The first thing that you can learn from watching The Circle on Netflix is that having photos on your profile that show your personality makes a big difference. Your photo is the first thing that people see about you on social media.

I love getting to hear contestants talk about which profile photo they’re choosing. When you’re looking at your photos trying to decide which one to use as your profile photo, think about which shows your personality best. What are you trying to communicate with your profile? Think about the outfit that you’re wearing, what kind of expression is on your face, and what’s in the background.

When you have a profile photo that shares your personality, people learn a little bit more about you instantly. Your profile photo leaves a lasting impression on social media.

For academics, sharing a photo of yourself on social media helps people recognize you. If you’re headed to a conference and tweet about your talk, you want your fellow conference attendees to be able to learn a bit about you. And it’s great if they can see a photo of your smiling face.

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2. Remember things about the people you talk with to help you have deeper conversations.

The Circle on Netflix is a closed social media platform. You might compare it to Slack or MightyNetworks. You can only engage in conversations with people through the general Circle Chat and through direct messages, messages which can be with one or more people.

Having conversations with people in The Circle is the only way to build your relationships. And yes, this does advance you in the game. But it also deepens your relationships in real life. Whether these people, the other contestants in The Circle, are catfish or not, the conversations you have with them are real.

The only way that you can learn about the people in The Circle is by having conversations with them. My second tip is that remembering things about the people you talk with helps you have deeper conversations. What do I mean by deeper? Well, more meaningful, lasting, and relationship-building conversations.

For the competition in The Circle on Netflix, this makes a lot of sense. When people give you more information, they might slip up and let you know that they’re a catfish. They might let you know about who their friends are and who they are most loyal to. They also might share a story that you can relate to, something that tells you about who they are, what they care about, and why they are here. What you share with people in The Circle, can help the influencers each week decide if you should stay or be voted out of The Circle.

Whether you’re on a closed social media platform like Slack, or a public network like LinkedIn, Remembering the conversations you have will help you have deeper, more meaningful relationships. Networking is all in the details.

Academics, you have so much to remember, I get it. I’m not saying memorize what people tell you. One way to help you remember the details about the people you meet is to see if you can find 1 way you connect with them. One thing you have in common. Maybe it’s a shared research interest. Maybe you both like dogs. You’re more likely to remember something you share, something you have in common, so that’s my tip for you!

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3. People can tell when you’re not being yourself online.

I realize I just mentioned catfish in The Circle and I didn’t quite explain what that is. A catfish is someone on social media who is pretending to be not themselves.  Someone is “catfishing” when they have a profile on social media that does not reflect who they are in real life.

This is different from an anonymous account, where a person chooses not to share their real name. “Catfishing” is intentionally appearing as a different person. The term grew in popularity after the MTV show Catfish Began in 2008. The show is now on its 8th season where the show’s hosts uncover fake profiles of people in romantic relationships where one person is catfishing the other online. One thing I find notable about the show Catfish, is that many of the people who have fake profiles have real feelings. Even though the person is fake, oftentimes the relationship is based in real emotion.

On The Circle Netflix, being a catfish might help you make a lot of money if you make it to the end of the game. However, it can also hurt you to be a catfish. This is because of tip number 3. People can tell when you’re not being yourself online.

And yeah, okay, in real life this is a little bit easier now that we have video chat. But in The Circle on Netflix, you don’t have this option. You can’t see if someone’s real. You can’t even hear their voice. You can only go by what they share with you in the chat and on their profile.

At some point on every season of The Circle, some contestants hunt catfish. They’re looking for fake profiles. It’s an easy reason to vote someone off of the game. And may help you determine if you can trust someone to be loyal to you (or not). So if you are thinking about applying to be on The Circle you can totally be a catfish. You’ll probably have a fun time playing. Just know that it’s hard to convince people you’re someone you’re not. Authenticity shines through. People want to see you. And they get suspicious if they can’t tell who you are.

One of my professor clients wanted to know if they should have an anonymous account on social media. When I asked why, she said, “I’m not sure if I’m allowed to have a social media account. But I don’t want to miss out.” It’s not the 1st time I’ve heard this from an academic, so I said, “That’s probably not the case, but since you’re worried, let’s figure out who to ask.” Luckily her university had a great social media manager who had contact information accessible on the university website. When they got back to the professor, she learned that the university would love for her to be on social media. I was delighted! Of course I wanted her to be on social media. But I don’t recommend anonymous social media profiles if you can help it because people just aren’t sure who you are. They want you to be yourself.

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4. Nothing builds loyalty and friendship like opening up about yourself.

What really sets the good catfish apart from the catfish who get caught on The Circle is how they open up about themselves. Tip number 4 is that nothing builds loyalty and friendship like opening up about who you are and what you care about.

The season finale aired today. Yes! I watched it before recording this episode. I won’t tell you who won. At the end of the show everyone from the season, including eliminated players, return to meet in person in a luxurious lounge with host of The Circle, Michelle Buteau. Two of the players take a quick moment for an aside. Tom Haughton, a British comedian, thanks his fellow player, Chaz Lawry, a Los Angeles entrepreneur, by saying: “You were the 1st person to show me that being open is key to forming relationships.”

People get pretty deep on The Circle on Netflix. People have conversations about life defining moments, loss, trauma, family, and the values that matter most to them. The friendships that you make in The Circle determine how well you do in the game. The deeper your friendships are, the more likely you are to stay in the game.

When academics open up about their research, they can only help more people. When you share your story, you invite people to engage deeper. You invite people to care.

When you open up about yourself, and tell your friends and colleagues about yourself, it makes a big difference for your real life. This is because people will better know what you care about, how to help you, and how you can help others.

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5. Your friends will stick up for you and go to bat to protect you.

That loyalty brings us to tip number 5. Your friends will stick up for you. They’ll go to bat to protect you. The deeper your relationship is with your friend, the more likely they are to protect you with everything they can. Spoiler alert.

On The Circle Netflix, contestants build alliances with each other to help their friends stay in the game. Sometimes, the game forces you to do something you might not otherwise. For instance on this season an O.G. player, Shubham Goel, AKA “Shooby,” who was a fan favorite from season 1, returned. Pretending to be a sexy young woman named Sasha, Shooby made the mistake of trying to start a “rebellion” of the newer players in The Circle.

His reasoning was that the players on The Circle who arrived on day one, had more opportunity to build loyalty with each other, over the newer players. So, the new players should bad together to ensure their spot at the final table.

Why did this backfire? When Shooby was first on The Circle, he was loved by all the players. He was so nice, open, and thoughtful, that people loved who he was. Even though he didn’t win his season of The Circle, Shooby is one of the most well-known personalities because of his authenticity. When Shooby asked to return to The Circle this season, the producers said yes, but he had to be a catfish. Not being able to be his authentic self hurt Shooby in the game. He didn’t have the social capital it takes, the loyalty needed for a rebellion.

You see, other people in the Rebellion Chat had already built up loyalty with their other friends in The Circle. People they met before Shooby’s fake profile, “Sasha” entered the game. This meant that by the time Shooby approached them for the rebellion these Circle contestants were no longer interested in turning on their friends.

Shooby thought that his Rebellion would create new loyalties based on shared goals to do everything it takes to win. But doing what would have worked best for these players in the game, joining the Rebellion of new players, didn’t happen because people felt loyal to their original alliances. Your friends will stick up for you and go to bat to protect you when given the opportunity.

This is true in real life too. You may have seen on Twitter that one of my tweets at the end of 2022 went viral. Let me tell you, people had a lot of opinions. And they shared their opinions with me. Many of their feelings were negative. People didn’t like what I had to say.

There’s a cute coffee mug from Social Media Tea that reads,” you can’t handle going viral, I promise.” That’s me. I couldn’t handle going viral. At least, I felt that way at the time. I was getting dozens of notifications every minute with people angry at me for speaking the truth. For sharing something that was important to me because of equity, which I value highly.

Here’s the thing, I could handle going viral. I could handle it because of my friends. I got more messages of support from people who care about me, from friends, from people who read The Social Academic, and clients whose lives I’ve transformed. In 2 days, I got more messages of support than I’ve ever gotten in my life. Even from strangers who saw my viral tweet and felt empowered to ask for equity in pay for their speaking engagements for the 1st time. The outpouring of love and support made going viral bearable. And, people were open that they were reporting some of the disgusting, racist tweets people said to me. Friends told me that what I do matters. That I’m helping the world. I could handle going viral, because of them. The support of people you care about means so much more than the anger of people you don’t know. At least, that’s how it was for me.

In the weeks following my viral tweet, I saw not one but five friends and former clients, people I truly admire, go viral in a negative way for something they shared. If this happens to you mute that conversation. Take care of yourself. And, ask your friends for help. People can only help if you open up to them.

On The Circle Netflix, your friends want to stick up for you and help however they can. If you ask for help, they’ll be better aware and will help if they are able.

For academics, making friends can help your career. For many of my featured interview guests here on The Social Academic, the people they’ve met through social media and having an online presence has quite literally been life changing.

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6. Seeing what you create is fun (even when it’s not very good) – Think “Nailed it!”

There are fun games on The Circle. Some games are meant to help you learn more about your contestants, so you can make more informed decisions when ranking your fellow players. You see, the ranking determines who is an influencer that week. And it’s the influencers who decide who goes home.

I love that on The Circle one of the activities they get to do is crafting! In past years, contestants  have decorated a cake and drawn portraits of each other. This year they got to design their own outfit on a mannequin. Their outfit was meant to express their personality. The judge for this design activity was Tan France from Queer Eye For The Straight Guy. And people had fun with it! During the judging the contestants had big smiles, thinking about the friends they’ve grown close to wearing some of the over-the-top outfits that fit their personalities to a T.

What you share about yourself doesn’t have to be a text-only post on social media. When you add a photo or video of something that you’re up to, especially something you create, people get really engaged.

People love seeing what you make, even if it’s not very good. You might have heard of another popular Netflix show called Nailed It! where contestants try and fail in incredibly hilarious ways to make impossible desert creations from Jacque Torres.

Seeing what you create is fun, especially when it’s not very good. I want you to apply this thought to social media. Stop trying to get the perfect selfie. Your video is never going to be perfect. People want to see your messy desk, your haphazard office bookshelf, not a picture perfect ‘magazine’ shot of your space. They want to see your struggles and failures if you’re willing to share them. They’ll relate to any post that is authentically you.

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7. More people know about you / care about you than you might think.

On this new season of The Circle Netflix, Shooby returned as a catfish. And after the rebellion, it was no surprise that Shooby was voted out of The Circle. The influencers saw through him and felt that he didn’t make a convincing woman teacher named Sasha. They thought he was a catfish. And they were right.

When you’re eliminated from The Circle on Netflix, you get the opportunity to visit one other contestant in The Circle. You get to see the person behind the profile and have a candid conversation about the competition. Shooby thought hard about who he should visit before leaving The Circle. He chose to visit another player called Jennifer.

I’m telling you about this episode because I thought it was really cute. Shooby expected Jennifer to be a middle-aged blonde woman. Much to his surprise, Jennifer turned out to be not one, but two players staying in the same apartment and sharing the Jennifer profile. Shooby discovered that the two players pretending to be Jennifer had been the first to be eliminated from this season of The Circle, on Day 1. They were subject of a double elimination, and given the opportunity from The Circle to come back as a catfish, named Jennifer. Their real names behind the Jennifer profile are Brett and Xanthi.

You might know Brett Robinson if you’re a fan of the reality competition show, Big Brother. Earlier in this season of The Circle, Brett was talking with Xanthi about Shooby. He said, “Shooby can’t possibly be as nice as he seems in real life.”

If you haven’t watched Season 1 of The Circle, Shooby comes across as the sweetest person. He doesn’t like social media. If you look at his Instagram profile, he shares low resolution selfies and photos of his family. Even though he came in last in the rankings on Day 1, he made it to the end of the game being himself. So this season when Brett said, “Shooby can’t possibly be as nice as he seems,” it was because Shooby seemed SO NICE.  Maybe even too nice. Like it was maybe too good to be true?

Well, they came face to face when Shooby chose to visit Jennifer before his exit from season 5 of The Circle. It was an interaction full of excitement and open admiration. Brett and Xanthi got super excited to see a player they were fans of. They enthusiastically shared their own journey in The Circle with Shooby.

Tip number 7 is that more people know about you and care about you than you think. When Shooby entered the apartment to meet Jennifer, he recognized the man standing in front of him and said, “Brett! I’m a fan.”

Brett’s face when he realized Shooby knew who he was – it was adorable! The recognition and admiration was real between the two. And when Shooby finally made his departure from The Circle, Brett jumped up and down and said, “He knew who I was! Shooby knew who I was, did you see that?” Brett and Shooby were reality stars on separate shows. And, they were fans of each other without knowing it.

More people know who you are than you might think. More people care about you, and your research, and what you share on social media than you know.

Don’t hesitate to reach out to the people you admire most. Tell them why you care about them. Tell them how they touched your life. Nothing bad can come from telling someone they matter to you.

One of my clients, an amazing professor, was catching up with me on Zoom. He said he’d just come home from an academic conference and more than one person introduced themselves to him. And they had read his bio, explored his website, and even read his research. He was literally recruited for a job at the conference because someone was able to learn about him and his research. They were excited to meet him. Your online presence invites more people to know about you, and to care about your research.

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Wrap up

A stock photo of a living room with The Circle Netflix pulled up on the television, ready to be played.

I could talk about The Circle all day. It was hard to narrow my list down to just 7 tips to share with you. I’m going to run through the full list for of tips for you now:

  1. People don’t know anything about you when they come across your profile for the 1st time. Have photos on your profile that show your personality.
  2. Remember things about the people you talk with to help you have deeper conversations.
  3. People can tell when you’re not being yourself online.
  4. Nothing builds loyalty and friendship like opening up about yourself.
  5. Your friends will stick up for you and go to bat to protect you.
  6. Seeing what you create is fun (even when it’s not very good) – Think “Nailed it!”
  7. More people know about you / care about you than you might think.

The conversations you have online build real relationships with real people, people that can impact your life. People that can help you, people who you can help.  The Circle is just a reality show on Netflix, but it can teach us so many things about creating deeper relationships on social media. And, in real life.

I hope that you watch an episode of The Circle. Or, binge watch the whole series! If you do, let me know. Maybe you’re a super fan like me! If you’ve watched The Circle before, but you didn’t pay close attention, go back and watch an episode to see what people say about the posts they read. I love seeing their reactions to what they see in the Circle Chat, and hearing what they think about what they’ll say in the chat, before they say it. What I noticed each season is that you can’t control what other people think about what you say. You can control what you say, when you say it, and how open you are with what you share.

I hope you love The Circle as much as me. Thanks for listening to this episode. If you’re ready to take control of your social media life, I would love to talk with you. My Online Presence Program for professors is here to help you make greater impact with your research and teaching in efficient ways that fit into your busy life. I want you to feel confident when talking about yourself online. I want you to feel your authentic self is enough, that you are who people want to see.

In my Online Presence Program, we work together one-on-one to build you the digital footprint you deserve. 2023 is your year for more people to know your name. For more people to know how they can connect and engage with you and your research in authentic ways. My name is Jennifer van Alstyne, and I’m here to help you. Let’s find a time to meet virtually on Zoom. I can’t wait to talk with you about your online presence.

I have so many amazing Ideas to share with you on The Social Academic podcast this year. So, please subscribe to the podcast, blog, or YouTube channel. If what I’m sharing resonates with you, please share it with a friend. And do reach out to me! I would love to hear from you. You can find me on social media @HigherEdPR.

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Jennifer van Alstyne View All →

Jennifer van Alstyne is a Peruvian-American poet and communications consultant. She founded The Academic Designer LLC to help professors build a strong online presence for their research, teaching, and leadership. Jennifer’s goal is to help people feel confident sharing their work with the world.

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