I confess, I am addicted to MTV’s reality show, Catfish. I recently read that before hosts Nev Schulman and Max Joseph are able to read a single word from the victim of a potential Catfish, the production staff does extensive homework on all involved parties, which includes verification of the story, obtaining signed releases, and often requesting that the person being Catfished write a letter to Nev and Max asking for their help. This is done because the majority of the people who contact MTV are the Catfish themselves, likely looking to finally come clean, which explains why their first words are almost always an apology. Almost always.
Catfish has gotten quite heavy in its third season. While Nev has always been the calm voice of reason with Max occasionally losing patience and having to take a breather, we have seen Nev become seriously heated and angry at the people who have been hiding behind a false persona. On the episode featuring Kidd Cole, who has scammed thousands of dollars out of who knows how many people, Nev became so angry at Cole’s lack of empathy with his latest victim that he threw Cole’s phone into a river. Producers on-site have had to step in multiple times to calm Nev and Max down because, in their words, they are in danger of sabotaging their own show unless they get their emotions in check. But honestly, who can blame them?
To my knowledge, I have never been Catfished, but I feel very confident that it has happened to me at least once during my life online. Like most people nowadays, I’ve formed numerous friendships with people I’ve met online but never been able to see in person or video chat with. I even met my husband online, although he was thankfully very real and never once hid behind any online falsehood. I have friendships with people on Twitter that I still have yet to meet in person. I’ve had brief interactions with people I assume are celebrities on a verified account that could in fact be just a random employee of that public figure. Every single day, I find myself in some sort of contact with a person that could be someone very different from who I assume they are.
The idea of Catfishing someone is hardly a new concept though, just one that has only recently been thrown into a spotlight. Back when I was eleven and my AOL access was limited to an hour of glorious dial-up per week, I can recall spending the majority of that hour in various chat rooms made for my age group. I quickly noticed that unlike the real world, each chat room would have a huge number of tall blond cheerleaders and ruggedly handsome football players. The older I got, the bigger the lies became. A slight exaggeration on physical appearance became outright lies that took hundreds of pounds off of bodies, changed genders and orientations, shaved off decades from a person’s age, and allowed anyone to have whatever career and financial status they wanted. The joke became that any and all lesbian chat rooms were actually nothing but 30 – 50 year old men talking dirty to one another.
You would think that the more we see liars and cheats exposed online, and the more we see how easily one person can become someone else entirely via the internet, the more cautious we would all become. Nev and Max’s investigations on Catfish are reduced from hours into minutes, but their work gives us more than a few tricks that can easily be used to verify someone’s identity. The last episode of Catfish featured a tech-savvy guy who didn’t do his homework out of respect for the girl he thought he was talking to, but surely our own safety is more important that an imagined slight against a stranger. I just popped my photo into a Google image search and scared myself a bit at how accurate the results were. Lying is easy, but exposing those lies is easier.
In addition to being cautious, we need to be smart. Giving some random stranger online your full trust is beyond stupid. People who wouldn’t trust some of their own family will put all of their faith into a person from Facebook that they’ve never met. It’s mind-boggling. Stopping for a moment and being rational rather than emotional could work to save a lot of people from a lot of heartache. In the case of recent Catfish, Kidd Cole, it could have saved people a lot of money had they not taken the word of someone simply because he had a shiny cover story and amazing empty promises. Every single person who puts themselves on the internet immediately makes themselves vulnerable to some extent. How vulnerable you allow yourself to be, however, is something every one of us can closely control.