We’re All Catfish: The Plight of Staying “IRL” in the Digital Age

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It’s a conversation I distinctly remember having over AIM when I was about 16 or 17. I was with my friend Elizabeth, using her home computer to chat with anonymous strangers we met in chat rooms.

Bbman123: you sound pretty sexy

Saddlegurrrl: yeah. just sitting here with my 34c’s. mini skirt. typing to you.

Bbman123: wow. let me see those 34cs. you got pic?

Saddlegurrrl: cccccccccccccccccccccccccccccccccc

Part of the tease was pretending not to be ourselves. Another part was using that persona to get our fellow conversationalist to say really embarrassing things that we could then laugh at together. It was harmless, it was juvenile, and for a moment in time, it was an exhilarating escape. I may have retired my unimaginative fake screen name and my “34 c’s,” but a large part of the online community never lets go of their familiar masks.

This week, Nev Schulman, the star and host of MTV’s Catfish and the 2010 documentary of the same name, released his first book, In Real Life: Love, Lies, & Identity in the Digital Age. A victim of digital impersonation himself, Schulman shares in his book the thrilling and perplexing love story that has now shaped his entire identity and career.

In his twenties, Schulman was contacted through MySpace by the family of a prodigious eight year-old painter and soon became entangled in a long distance romance with their eldest 19 year-old daughter. Communicating via phone, email, and Facebook with a group of 14 people in the small town of Ishpeming, Michigan over a series of eight months, Schulman stepped into the complicated world of the family, dedicating a majority of his time to communicating with them and the lovely young woman. Flirty pictures were exchanges, sexting occured. But as it turns out, the entire group was a product of the imagination of one lonely, middle-aged woman. When told, the story sounds fictional, a long road boasting too many red flags, but the intricate web of lies Schulman unwittingly stepped into is something not uncommon online. In fact, it’s too common today. Taking the know-h0w and lessons from his tumultuous real-life experience, Schulman has become something of a digital romance folk hero, creating a documentary and television show examining those who create fake online identities. Schulman also gave us the language to identify the problem.

Joining the popular lexicon in 2010, defines a catfish as “someone who pretends to be someone they’re not, using Facebook or other social media to create false identities, particularly to pursue deceptive online romance.” As Schulman describes, catfish are usually insecure and lonely individuals creating the versions of themselves online they would rather see — someone thinner, happier, smarter, healthier, younger, older, or even a different gender. Those most susceptible to being catfished, according to Schulman, are those with lower self esteem who have “an almost universal desire to improve themselves.” Often, the catfished are undergoing an identity crisis and become all-too-ready to meet someone who really appreciates who they are on the inside and makes them feel significant. “No one gets hooked because they are stable, are in great relationships, and have their lives together,” Schulman states.

The heart of Schulman’s book is dedicated to relating his own catfishing experience, but he also spends a great amount of In Real Life presenting a crash course on how not to be catfished and proposes a courageous idea: what if we all stopped playing this game of identity with ourselves? “It’s easy to say one of the biggest issues with the Internet is that people can pretend to be someone else,” Schulman writes. “That’s a bogeyman everyone can get behind: Catfish are bad. But at the core of that problem is how we are relating to ourselves in the digital age. The truth is that when you’re on social media, you are essentially having a conversation with yourself. We hide, and the result is that we prefer shallow relationships based on 140-character tweets rather than real conversations based on intimacy.”

Schulman may have a point there. By signing up to use myriad social media platforms that will all require different mediums to package ourselves — photos, shared links, character-limited quips, videos, or status updates — that in no way could reflect who we truly are out on the streets, are we all tacitly agreeing to catfish one another?

Our own propensity to use technology to misrepresent or enhance ourselves is not a new one. Historical texts and books reveal centuries of mistaken identities, long-distance lovers, and strangers using technology to form connections otherwise impossible. The play Cyrano de Bergerac by Edmond Rostand follows the life of a 17th-century poet whose large nose and lack of self confidence find him wooing his love Roxane through love letters, sent on behalf of a good looking friend. Shakespeare, the Renaissance master of catfishing, relies on some form of mistaken identity or bed trick in all of the following plays: The Merchant of Venice, As You Like It, Othello, King Lear, Much Ado About Nothing, All’s Well That Ends WellTwelfth Night, and A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Pretending to be someone else to pursue a relationship is an old concept, but it becomes much more complicated when a simple Shakespearean face mask or cloak is exchanged for real world burgeoning technology.

In the 1880s, the novel Wired Love follows a telegraph operator named Nattie and her deceitful correspondence with her paramour, who she only communicates with through telegraphs. She soon learns her adoring scribe isn’t who he claims to be (fittingly, he’s a fellow operator.) Once they do meet, Nattie reflects to him how their conversations were a lot easier when they just took place on the telegraph.

That’s the trouble with relationships solely based on online interactions, according to Schulman — the expert of being duped online — there is always a set up and fall out. If we’re buying into someone’s false identity through chat exchanges and emails, inevitably meeting them in real life will be a disappointment, not to mention a relationship-ruiner, or worse, financially devastating. Alternate personas are not only more seductive, they’re incredibly easier to maintain.

In the 2012 documentary TalhotBlond, the lengths and dangers of online deception are explored.

In his book, Schulman makes a good point that we don’t often want to face: social might demand too much of us. “There’s a finite amount of connection that any one person can have with the world,” Schulman writes. He claims we all have an emotional bank account and the upkeep of social media, with its “friends” in the stead of true friends, depletes our social energy and leaves us beholden to a life that doesn’t truly exist.

“Thanks to social media and our culture of public consumption, the way you are perceived seems so much more important than what you actually are. The Internet lets you get that attention without having to do the hard work,” Schulman writes. What is the hard work? According to In Real Life, hard work is awkward interactions in person, first time meetings, uncomfortable conversations, and talks where you let someone down or surprise them. A text to our friend whose sibling just died is a lot easier than showing up in person, embracing them, and enduring what could be minutes or hours of working through their grief. Real human relationships are tough, but as we all know, they are also almost always extremely rewarding. Banning social media use isn’t the answer. In an interview with Salon, Nev Schulman described himself as a social media addict. Social media isn’t the problem, Schulman seems to be saying, but our behavior on it is.

Estimates say that the number of profiles on Facebook that are fakes is somewhere between 5.5 and 11.2 percent of all active users, or an estimate of 70.11 million users are fakes, duplicates, or misclassified accounts. If there are always other fish in the sea, a significant amount of them on social media are going to be catfish.

However, the truth is the majority of us aren’t catfished in the apocalyptic, time-consuming manner Schulman was. Most of our catfishing happens and is perpetrated on a daily basis, in small, insidious ways. In his book, Schulman knocks what he calls the “myth of the white lie,” those small alterations to our social media profiles like cropped photos, manicured interests, and tailored stats that ultimately package us as someone other than we actually are. The problem with even small lies, which we see every day and we all commit, is that they create an online culture of dishonesty. Schulman writes that it creates “a culture in which the lives that we present to our friends on the internet are increasingly at odds with the lives that we really lead.”

In an essay for VICE, James Franco aptly describes catfishing as “liposuction in the digital world.” A master selfie taker himself, Franco realized that he and the rest of us are only trying to present our best, most interesting sides to the Internet at large. Which makes sense in a world where we’re largely judged and given opportunities due to our outside appearances. Eric, a well-establlished New York-based photographer, told me of a time when he was “catfished” by a client of his. We got hired for a fairly large adult brand commercial shoot. One of the shots was to be of a couple in their underwear on the crowded streets of New York,” Eric explains to Hooksexup.

“Given their budget, we decided to go with an online casting. After we presented them with several of the top picks, they narrowed it down to incredibly sexy people. So the shoot day comes, we are on the street setting up, the models come down in robes, they get into place and drop their robes. She looks stunning just like in her pictures however he, he looked like he was using pictures 15 years older and 30 lbs lighter,” Eric says. “Mind you, we do not discriminate especially based on body type, but this was for a client who had particular requirements. The fella didn’t even bother to groom himself and had one of the most pronounced t-shirt tans we have ever seen. Being as how it was on NY streets, we got an endless stream of commentary, ‘Shiiiit, he ain’t no underwear model.’ We ended up dismissing him early. The takeaway: never let the budget decide things your clients should be deciding and always do a Skype chat before booking.”

Self creation is a whole lot different from manipulation, but the ease with which we can fall into the pattern of innocuous to malicious internet lies is well known. Personas, self-edits, and flat-out deceit intrude upon our own sense of selves. As Mark Twain said, “if you tell the truth, you don’t have to remember anything.”

Catfishing might be age-old, but our disconnection from reality is not. Our preening on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram could even be considered catfishing-lite. What Nev Schulman is selling in In Real Life isn’t exactly revolutionary. Still, his resistance against performance and facade in an era that practically mandates it is worth noting. And it’s worth reflecting how our own heightened identities impact our relationships. If Schulman had it his way, we’d all take a step back from the screen (though, he might be out of the job) and remember that relationships are maintained and exist mainly in the 3-D realm — not just IRL, but in real life.

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