If you keep up with pop-culture news at all or have young people living in your home, you’ve probably heard the term “catfish” used in a way that doesn’t exactly reference a sea creature. In lingo, a “Catfish” is someone who willingly falsifies all or part of their identity while interacting with others online, often through social media (like Facebook or Twitter) or dating services (ex. Match.com). One of the more high-profile instances of this was with college football star Manti Te’o, who claimed he fell in love with a Leukemia-ridden woman online and it proved to be a hoax (unfolding countering details of his story caused some to accuse Te’o of lying all together, but that’s beside the point). The January 3rd episode of “Dr. Phil” focused on catfishes from Africa who scam women for money. Photographer Nev Schulman gained national attention when he filmed a 2010 documentary about his experience being catfished that subsequently became a hit series for MTV (entitled “Catfish: The TV Show”), in which he helps others meet (and in some cases, expose) their elusive acquaintances. Some episodes conclude sweetly and the 2 people involved still end up together, but majority end ugly in heated arguments and broken hearts. Catfish are widely viewed as vile manipulators, but I think this is a giant misconception. Yes, there are plenty who intentionally scam and/or deceive others for sport (ex. bullying or pranking) or personal gain (ex. money and gifts), but I contend that most are everyday people who got in over their heads in a unique situation.
The internet is a customizable alternate universe. You can block out or absorb who and what you want. Don’t like your environment or the people around you? You can easily find those you’d consider more appetizing or those that have common interests without even trying. I blinked and I had a whole slew of people who battle with depression, just like me, following my Tumblr page. I assume they found me by searching “depression” or associated terms. Feel like you can’t express yourself freely? Feel like you have to censor yourself because of who’s reading and watching? Start anonymous account. Depending on the forum, no one ever has to see your face, hear your voice or even know your name. Particularly for misfits, the web can be the place where they finally are a rock-star. Able to accentuate certain parts of their personality or thinking, (because again, it’s a customizable universe) they can be recognized for being funny or talented, as opposed to “weird” or “uncool.” I follow a Twitter account that posts sarcastic jokes. It has thousands of followers. The person(s) behind it may not have a single friend in their daily life, but online, they’d be considered popular. For a lot of individuals, the digital space is an escape where they can be themselves, who they want to be or what they wish they were. The person who throws up a fake picture, name or career is likely doing it because A) they’re using a medium where a visual is expected, like Facebook, and/or B) they’re afraid of being assessed and judged. People in their daily world look down on them, so why wouldn’t you?
Here’s how one of these online snowballs can form. Let’s say, for example, a guy named Greg is a gamer and he meets Sarah (very pedestrian names, huh?) on a message board. For a while, the two talk about games, cheating secrets and such. Then one day, Greg sees Sarah’s online; he doesn’t have anything game-related to talk about, he’s just bored or wants to say hello. They carry on a casual conversation and realize they have several things in common; maybe they’re from the same place or of the same culture. Now, their communication pattern includes games and personal things. They have quite the chemistry and the flirtatious energy is even more noticeable on the phone, as Greg asked to swap phone numbers. Sarah wants to exchange pictures. Greg freezes; he has a severe acne-problem and is worried Sarah will be grossed out and won’t be interested anymore. He takes a photo of an acquaintance and sends it to her. The pair have gotten to talking every day and the interest is growing.
Some might find it strange and be confused at how people can fall in love online, but it’s easier than imagined. If you notice, a lot of the people seen on Catfish-on both sides- are profoundly lonely or socially awkward. The thing is, believe it or not, they represent a large number of the population. I don’t know about you guys, but I talk to people on a regular basis who feel misunderstood, emotionally unfulfilled or isolated in some way. We’re attention-starved and our voids are wide; this is why social media exists in the 1st place-so we can mass connect with people who share our values and make a press conference out of our everyday thoughts and activities. We love “likes,” “retweets,” “reblogs,” and comments because they validate our feelings (it shows we’re not alone in them) and indicate approval. For those with a large following, it exalts them from Jane or John Doe to a master. We crave nurturing and focus, so if someone comes along offering that who fits our fancy, we’ll likely take it, and for a generation who practically lives online, cyber-love isn’t a stretch. Health-related hoaxes where the orchestrators never ask for money (ex. pretending to be the mother of a sick child) are the best examples of the desperation for attention. Some of the frequently-asked-questions people have about these situations are: “They (the catfish) never thought they would get caught?” and “How can someone (the catfished) be that gullible? As I described earlier, these situations develop like snowballs. Many catfish don’t expect things to go beyond the internet and they think they’ll always maintain control. The catfished aren’t as naïve as they seem. They see the red flags; they just ignore them because they really need the person on the other end of the screen to be real. Even in the smallest of ways, the identity they’ve come to know is a source of comfort, support and investment. Both of the guests featured on the “Dr. Phil” airing I mentioned were women who had been unlucky in love and didn’t have children. The 2nd woman was barely courted by her catfish; she just liked the idea of having someone to talk to-albeit briefly-everyday and say he loved her.
I may seem over-sympathetic to the catfishes of the world, but as the cliché says “There are 2 sides to every story” and if you look close, the 2 sides here are recurrently alike. Over again, there are some definite baddies-I’ve yelled at my TV screen plenty of times-but generally, I’m hesitant to call either person a “villain” or “victim.”