Who better to talk about social isolation than someone who’s already been through it? Shubham “Shooby” Goel is a former contestant of “The Circle,” a Netflix reality TV competition that took the world by storm in January, long before COVID-19 entered the news cycle. He was best known for his lovable personality and open disdain for social media — he called it “this generation’s bubonic plague.”
The show placed a group of strangers in individual apartments, where they interacted with each other solely through a voice-activated platform. Their goal? To win $100,000 by consistently ending up at top of a daily ranking and avoiding getting “blocked” and sent home. Contestants who made it from beginning to end were alone in their apartment for a total of 14 days.
We caught up with Goel, who’s currently isolated with his family in California, and talked about “The Circle,” social distancing and how he keeps busy.
How did you end up on ‘The Circle’?
I've always been a big fan of these competition shows. So one of my friends saw the banner for “The Circle” last year, with the concept of the game and the application. And I loved it. I thought, ‘Wow, this is so representative of the world we live in.’ It just encapsulated the digital world more than anything. I thought it would be really interesting, how someone with my social media views would do in a game like this.
Were you worried about being alone for an extended amount of time?
Actually, no, I wasn't. We had producers that would come in and check on us, and had therapists on call if we needed. I was playing a lot of ping pong against the walls, walking a lot in between the rooms, making PB&Js, exercising. I did a lot of home exercises — I tried to get creative with it.
The game actually took up a lot of the time. I was so fascinated by the bonds I was building with people. I brought a book, but I didn’t even read much of it because I was so preoccupied with the game. It was a Shakespeare book with all the plays in it, and I thought I was going to read them all, and get reacquainted with my love of Shakespeare, but it was so exciting in there and you’re just focused on everything else. [The producers] had a ton of activities for us to play, and there was all the stress of ranking people or thinking about what to say in the chats.
What was it like interacting with others while being disconnected from the rest of the world?
Truthfully, I think everyone should go through something like this. We didn't have the phones or the internet or any outside distractions, and because of that, you’re really able to create these strong bonds that you never make in the real world. I honestly miss when we were in our little bubble and just talking to each other and there were no distractions. It was like the best feeling in the world. It was fulfilling. It was exhilarating. It was electrifying. So those bonds I built in “The Circle” were so meaningful to the point where I didn't even miss human contact. I thought I would make great friends, but I didn’t realize how strong the connections you would build in there. That was surprising.
You’re back in social isolation, thanks to COVID-19. How does it feel?
It’s kind of a mind trip to do “The Circle” and then this happens a couple months later. But I think this [social isolation] is different, because it's longer already. And this time, I have all my electronics, so there’s more stuff to do online. And, I have my family.
Do you have any advice for those out there who are likely going through this for the first time?
Yeah, for all the rookies out there [laughs]. I would say, try not to stress too much about it. Even I can’t help it sometimes, I have anxiety and stress about stuff I can’t control, but at the end of the day, whatever happens is going to happen and we will through it.
Make the most of [social isolation]. If there's anything you've ever wanted to do in life, now’s the time. While we still have some responsibilities, we have definitely more time. Binge a lot of TV! I’ve been binging a lot. You can be creative, pull out those board games. I also know more people are more online than ever. You can try to find people in communities that have similar interests. There's just so much you can do.
I also think everyday just try to do something a little bit different, just to keep it fresh. And, of course, just don't stress about the big things, the stuff you can’t control.
Do you view social media as a way to connect with loved ones during isolation?
During this time, social media has become probably more important to people because you can’t see each other in real life. It’s important to be able to connect. While using social media just to check up on people is great, [social media] is also great for bonding over shared activities. Finding similarities with close friends and family is a great way to strengthen the relationship online. And there’s so many ways to talk to them — on Reddit, Facebook, Instagram. Zoom is going insane. Or you can write them letters, if you're feeling old school. Get a feather pen and go for it.
You’ve mentioned a distaste for social media in the past. Have your views changed?
Don't get me wrong, I still think there's bad stuff on social media, like the impact it can have on your mental health. I think it can be a comparison contest. So there are some bad aspects, but as you saw from the show, you can build friendships with it, you can connect with others. You can have your voice heard, you can raise awareness for charities. And just spread positivity.
So I think an instance like this, where we are all going through the same thing in quarantine, [social media] has helped build a community where everyone can connect. It’s one of the best tools we have right now.
This interview has been lightly edited for clarity and style.
Image: Nastia Kobzarenko