A group of young men stand waiting on a rural New York state driveway, looking both ways down a road for the approach of a mystery woman. One of them has already fallen in love with her, despite never actually meeting in person.
With the help of a few documentary filmmakers, that heartsick kid started to confront doubts about the veracity of the relationship and look into the truth of his paramour’s identity. As far as everyone can tell, however, she is who she says, a former pageant queen and aspiring model/pinup.
But after the car finally pulls up, the girl from Facebook is nowhere to be seen. In fact, the woman who gets out is an acquaintance of the lonely teen and had previously vouched to the filmmakers for the dream girl’s existence.
When asked why she runs a fake Facebook profile, her answer is, “Which one?”
So begins the climax of an episode of MTV’s Catfish, a show that builds off a documentary of the same name. The premise is to find people in online-only relationships and help them discover whether the Internet matches reality. This term has taken on new ubiquity in the wake of the revelations surrounding Manti Te’o and the hoax involving his nonexistent girlfriend, Lennay Kekua.
Setting aside that this episode in Notre Dame’s history is still evolving, the Internet should basically kill anyone’s incredulity that such a thing is possible. It does not take very long to become acclimated to how dark certain people and places can become online.
That’s because one of our keystone currencies with each other — the truth of our identities — is so fungible when computers get involved. People can not only steal your credit cards, they can start to take over your emotional well-being with a simple friend request.
Many times and in many ways, fake identities online are a harmless outlet for humor. For example, there is an amusing Twitter account for Father Sorin, and a thousand other parodies like “Kim Kierkegaardashian,” which mashes up the ridiculous world of a socialite with a philosopher’s musings.
But, as Catfish shows, there are people who don’t want to have everyone in on their jokes.
Unmistakably, a lot of this problem is generational in nature. When I first moved to Annapolis, Maryland, in 2007, my apartment was near a public library and a public housing complex. After school, the kids from the area wouldn’t stop at a basketball court or a backyard or a street corner — they jammed the line for the computers to check their Facebook accounts. The after-school hangout had gone virtual, even for those who didn’t have their own computers or broadband connection. Age wasn’t really a barrier, either. I saw 10-year-olds Facebook messaging rather than knocking on a friend’s door, and I saw a teenager spend about a half-hour speaking to someone about how gorgeous her online avatar was.
This is admittedly anecdotal and judgmental. The subtext to my observations is that my childhood experiences were substantively better, a conclusion that will probably take a few decades and many academic studies to sort out. The Internet is not going away, and plenty of kids will likely grow up no worse for wear, with broader interests, broader knowledge, and broader appreciation of the good technology can do. I have no doubt, and have seen with my own eyes, that plenty of worthwhile connections have been made and support shared across cyberspace in thousands of forums and chat rooms and various places subcultures meet.
My worry is more what can happen when a young person still struggling to make sense of his or herself finds a sole outlet in a virtual world where the number of masks they try on is limited just by time and creativity. Holden Caulfields and Facebook accounts can be trouble.
Another episode of Catfish involved a rural Michigan teenager confronting the real face of his blond, party girl crush: a black, gay male. It’s hardly surprising that someone who lives in an isolated part of the country, with the attendant and natural struggles of race and sexuality, could find a release for his angst by making a new identity and finding new friends — friends who claim to love who he has become online.
Unfortunately, his struggles caught up strangers.
The root of catfishing is not new. There is a reason the term “bildungsroman” was coined, and every person, at some point, will struggle with who they are and who they want to be. And depending on how vulnerable they are or how vulnerable someone else is, this can manifest in anything from drug addiction to a fictional love story with a naïve counterpart.
And even if the method changes over time, the solution has not. We have to make sure people know that they aren’t alone outside of the Internet, and that the warmest embraces are the ones that come from real arms. There are no limits on the depths of the human heart, but we have to be careful on where — and to whom — it is given.
Liam Farrell is the alumni editor of this magazine. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org