Spoiler alert: This piece contains spoilers about the movie Catfish and also Catfish: The TV Show. Read at your own risk!
In the early days of the internet, when AOL start-up CDs arrived in the mail with regularity, we were all too aware of the dangers of online strangers. Even in those old AOL chat room when someone asked, "A/S/L?," one could never truly trust the results. But as time marched on and people loosened up, we all began routinely engaging with strangers. By now I think it's safe to say that it's not even a little bit weird to meet people online and then have them in your reality. We all love the internet, and we use to not just to read the news and watch YouTube, but to find true love. For some, that means braving the muddy waters of OkCupid or eHarmony, for others it means joining an online gaming community or message board or whatever. It seems like we're all alone, behind our computers, reaching out for attention.
In 2010, Nev Schulman was the subject of the documentary, Catfish. The film followed Nev as he uncovered the sad, ugly truth behind his online love, Megan, who turns out to be Angela, a middle-aged wife and mother in rural Michigan living a tough life. It's gut-wrenching to watch as Nev confronts Angela to get answers on why she lied, gut-wrenching and absolutely fascinating. After the docudrama was released, Nev allegedly began receiving emails from other kids in his predicament, all asking him to help them discover the truth about their online romances. MTV saw dollar signs and Catfish: The TV Show was born.
I caught a commercial for Catfish: The TV Show sometime before Thanksgiving in 2012 and was immediately obsessed. Captivated by the motivation of the "catfishes," I consumed every episode of the first season with zeal. Each episode revealed another incredible (or ridiculous) circumstance where someone had fallen in love online but were really being scammed by a liar. The most unique example of this is the guy in the south who thought the woman he was talking to was trans-- he revealed to his friend that he was cool with it and planned to continue a relationship with her and when she turned out to be a woman he was stunned and forced to face his sexuality head on. It was a real nail biter. It was also really, well, uncomfortable. It's hard to imagine there are so many unique cases of intense, romantic relationships where the people have never met or seen each other in real life. It's harder still to watch someone's heart break on television when they realize they've been had. The reasons people gave for catfishing varied. Unfortunately, many of them had to do with physical appearance, specifically weight issues, or people just wanting to mess with someone. Sometimes people catfished their own friend, just because they were too shy or scared to be honest about their feelings. All the while, host Nev Schulman and his filmmaker friend Max Joseph are standing by, dishing out Dr. Drew-style advice with hipster-chic intonation.
It freaked me out. It was like watching a weird dating show but it was also like couples therapy. I could not look away. When the Manti Te'o faux girlfriend scandal hit the news, I felt vindicated. "See?!" I told my friends. "This does really happen!" I was flabbergasted, though that may be because I'm lazy. I mean, two cell phones (and two cell phone bills), multiple Facebook profiles and personas, infinite status updates, juggling text messages, and those long, long nightly phone calls? That seems exhausting. Anywho, the show challenged audiences with some serious questions, both moral and practical. Is it smart to trust those you meet online? Is it okay to lie to someone you met online? And are there any exceptions in either case?