It’s been nearly a decade since the documentary Catfish made a splash in theaters — and introduced a new term for a person pretending to be someone else on social media.
The film, released in September 2010, followed documentarian Nev Schulman as he developed a romantic relationship through social media and text messages with a woman named “Megan,” only to discover that “Megan” was an older, married woman named Angela. The film served as inspiration for MTV’s Catfish: The TV Show, which kicks off its eighth season this week, hosted by Schulman himself.
Now, social media is front and center on another reality television show gaining buzz: The Circle on Netflix, hosted by Michelle Buteau, who describes the competition series as “a sassy Big Brother… with a dollop of Catfish.” Players on The Circle are kept apart in small studio apartments, where they can only interact with other players using instant messages, chatrooms, and other social media platforms. Every couple of days, the players — who are able to act genuinely as themselves or as a character of their own invention — are asked to rank which of the other contestants they like best, and eventually, someone is voted off in what is essentially a popularity contest. In the end, one player will win $100,000.
The term and the concept of a “catfishing” play heavily into the game, so PEOPLE went straight to the source and asked Schulman for his thoughts on The Circle.
“What I do on Catfish — and what Catfish hopes to do — is showcase people who are in these digital relationships, that formed real, meaningful connections and invested a lot of time and energy into them and want to find out who that person that they’ve been talking to is. It’s enjoyable and meaningful to watch because there are real people with real lives and real emotions involved,” Schulman says.
The Circle, Schulman points out, eliminates all of that: “When you remove the actual real-life circumstances and you take a random group of people pretty obviously chosen because of their sort of big, extra personalities, and you put them in a not-real-life situation, interacting with other people in a not-real way, it’s a lot less interesting.”
On the first season of The Circle, several players opt to pose as someone else — whether it’s someone with a different figure, a different age, someone they perceive as more attractive, or, in one case, a person of a different gender — in an effort to gain favor with the other players.
While he has his critiques of the concept, Schulman did share that he thinks this could forward the conversation around people’s use of social media and some people’s inclination to become a “catfish.”
“It raises an interesting point, which is when we present ourselves to each other, both in real life and even more so on the internet, we make choices, and those choices have real-world consequences,” he says. “Obviously The Circle sort of removes us from the real world, but I think it will get people thinking more than they may already be about how they want to be perceived and how they perceive other people.
Schulman continues, “My wife and I were watching it, and we were laughing because in the first episode they have to rate everybody, and it’s all about sort of quickly looking at someone’s profile on their bio and making a snap judgment. That’s something we all do. And that is something that, maybe in the future, when we are learning about someone on the internet for the first time, we shouldn’t be so quick to judge them based on the 40 characters or whatever it is that they have to fill their profile. So I think it will get people to reflect a little bit, and that’s always a good thing.”
Schulman does have a bone to pick with The Circle, though: the word “catfish” being “thrown around” and frequently misused, an issue he finds is widespread beyond the series as well.
“On one hand, it’s an honor and I’m pleased that I was able to contribute something necessary to the vernacular of modern-day conversation,” Schulman says. “On the other hand, unfortunately, it often doesn’t do justice to the original intent and definition of the word that we meant to create. It sort of waters it down and popularizes it in a way that makes it easy to dismiss, like, ‘Oh, “catfish” is just some liar.’ That’s not really what we intended.”
Schulman adds, “If you look at it more in-depth, a catfish really is a complicated person who, for any number of reasons and personal struggles, has found themselves creating a profile of varying veracity or truths to explore, and interact, and discover themselves.”
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As his show enters its eighth season, Schulman says Catfish has evolved, and the stories more frequently start with a friend or relative reaching out about someone they care about needing a hand meeting the person they’ve been communicating with.
“That new dynamic has been really interesting because it creates the initial conflict — we have to reach out to the stranger without them knowing. In some cases, its without them even having solicited our help, and we need to convince them to let us help. It’s an interesting initial surprise and conversation that happens before we can even get started.”
Catfish airs Wednesdays at 8 p.m. ET on MTV. The first eight episodes of The Circle are available to stream on Netflix now; the final four episodes will be released on Jan. 15.