Even though people think that Nev Schulman‘s 2010 documentary film Catfish was fake, I can’t help but be drawn in by his explorations into people’s online identities. He claims that he fell in love with a woman named Angela online, only to discover that she had created an entirely fake identity using photos of another person. Since then, he and Angela are apparently friends, and Nev has decided to help other people confront their online lovers to find out the truth about their relationships.
Creating a reality show out of your heartbreak is a questionable move, since it only supports the theory that this is all some social experiment. But I watched Catfish: The TV Show on MTV last night because I like to live vicariously through these people. I used to have a number of internet friends who I would have liked to meet, but I was too young and far too scared of getting kidnapped that I never tried.
It was all an issue of timing: I first went online when I was about 12 (in the year 2000) because I wanted to write fanfiction and participate in fandom in other ways. But because I was so young and the internet was still a dangerous creature that our parents’ generation had barely wrapped their heads around, my mom made me watch an Oprah special about internet safety. Perhaps more than any other piece of television, this episode is seared into my memory (although, sadly, I’ve never been able to find it online). What I most remember now is the pure hysteria—even though Oprah interviewed internet safety experts, they all said the same things: “If you type anything innocuous into Yahoo! [there was no Google back then], you will immediately end up on a PORN SITE, where INTERNET PREDATORS will find out WHERE YOU LIVE and KIDNAP and RAPE you.”
By the time my mom turned off the episode and cheerily said, “OK, you can sign on to AOL now,” I was sobbing. I was so terrified that any slip-up would result in me being snatched from my house, that I never ventured into chat rooms and I safely guarded my identity behind a screen name. Sure, everyone used an alias at the time, but I actually wove a thin web of lies to protect myself.
On last night’s episode of Catfish, Nev and camera man Max help bring together exotic dancer Trina and male entertainer Scorpio, who also goes by the name Lee Avent. While the two had been talking for over a year and often declared their love for each other, Lee was hesitant to Skype or meet in person. (She lives in Maryland, while he’s in Georgia.) After learning that Lee has moved back to Maryland, Nev forces a confrontation, at which point Trina discovers that Lee is a normal guy hiding behind Scorpio’s photos and persona. Although at first she feels betrayed, Trina ultimately realizes that she did fall for Lee the person. They agree to temporarily close the book on being in a relationship and instead start out as friends.
Did I mention that Trina’s real name is Shawnise? So Lee’s not the only one operating under multiple alter egos, though Trina doesn’t use her other persona to manipulate people. Unfortunately, he did play the exotic dancer angle, and it backfired once she met him face-to-face and it was clear that rather than a buff 27-year-old, he was a heavier 32-year-old with four kids.
The comparison struck me, because just like Trina and Lee were linked by their careers in exotic dancing, so too my internet buddies and I interacted exclusively in the fanfiction world. For the most part we talked about our latest stories, edited for each other, and wished that whatever TV shows we followed would come back from cancellation.
But we spent hours online, so eventually talk turned to more personal stuff. One night one of my closest friends, LadyBard, asked how old I was; I forgot how it came up in the conversation, but it was organic. I panicked and blurted out that I was 18 and a freshman at NYU. I was 13, lived in California, and had no idea where I wanted to go to college, let alone high school. When LadyBard would follow up in the future with questions about how classes and such were going, I’d have to pull up an NYU class schedule and make up little white lies. Thankfully, we never delved too deep into our personal lives; I think there was wariness on both sides. Usually I would ask LadyBard more about herself; assuming she wasn’t lying, I learned that she was 32, among other details about where she lived and what she did. I’m truly surprised she never asked me about 9/11, seeing as I supposedly lived in New York City.
And yet, I trusted her enough to tell her my first name one night. (Never the surname since it’s quite uncommon.) I don’t remember what prompted it; maybe the fact that my cat had died earlier that year and LadyBard sent me an audio message telling me she was there for me. It was incredibly sweet of her, and a gesture she wasn’t obligated to make, but it made me feel leagues better. Regardless, it was one night where I signed off; I added, “By the way, my real name is Natalie.” That moment will always stand out to me.
Since LadyBard lived on the East Coast, I thought about suggesting an in-person meeting when I went to look at colleges. But my mom immediately nixed that idea, still worried for my safety even though she would be there. I also worried about LadyBard’s reaction when I revealed that I’d been lying the whole time. Sure, 95% of what I said was true, but I’d presented an identity that wasn’t entirely sincere. I’m actually working on a play about internet friends for this reason. And as we see on Catfish: The TV Show, sometimes people are willing to readjust their view of a friend keeping in mind the true elements that did unite them.
Catfish seems a bit calculated, but it’s also a worthy exploration into the uneven transition from hiding behind screen names to people’s identities being totally out in the open thanks to Facebook and Twitter. If you can stomach the fact that some of the process is obviously contrived, you can still appreciate the show because the conflict is still sincere.