As told to Arielle Pardes
The term "catfish" has only existed since 2010, when Nev Schulman coined the word in his eponymous film about people who create fake online profiles to manipulate others. Before then, a catfish was just a whiskered, bottom-feeding fish. I resent the comparison. Catfish are stupid creatures; to convince someone that you're someone else online is careful, calculated work. I would know: I've been pretending to be other people online for the past eight years of my life.
My first-ever fake account was a guy named Joey. I was in middle school, and I was not in the "in-crowd." I realized one day that I could create a fake profile to approximate some of the attention that I wanted. I chose a few photos from Photobucket, made a fake MySpace page, and added everyone from my school. I used that account to comment on my real MySpace page, so people at school would see comments from "Joey" saying things like "you're so pretty!" It was so easy—and nobody caught on.
The fake accounts really started in 2008, as my life took a turn for the worse: I didn't have any friends. I had suffered textbook childhood abuse; my father was in prison and my mother was an addict. I wanted to be anyone but me—I wanted a different outcome, a different life. I wanted to be a different person. And with MySpace, I realized I could.
I found a girl I thought was cool on MySpace and grabbed about ten of her photos to create a new profile under the name Amanda Williams. I chose a generic name, so that if you searched for her, enough results would come up to minimize suspicion. I had stolen the photos from a girl named Samantha, who was friends with some kids at my school. She was beautiful, and a real scene queen: She had bright pink hair, lots of piercings, and most of all, her pictures exuded confidence.
Amanda, the fictional character I'd created, was the version of me that I so desperately wanted to be. She liked the same music that I did and shared the same general interests; but unlike me, Amanda was confident and bubbly. And because she was beautiful, lots of people added her, sending flirty messages along with their friend requests. That's the thing about MySpace: If you had the face, people would flock to you.
I spent all my free time on social media, building Amanda Williams' life like an avatar onThe Sims.
Soon, Amanda Williams became popular—the profile had hundreds of friends and I was finally getting the attention from men that I had always wanted for myself. I figured I could use Amanda to get in with the popular crowd at school, so I used the account to message a girl I went to school with, saying something about how awesome I was. I figured if a girl like Amanda said she liked me—Amanda the scene queen, the popular girl—then so would the real cool girls at my school. It backfired. The popular girls figured out that Amanda Williams had the same phone number listed on her MySpace as I did, and everyone found out that I had made her up. I went from being invisible to being totally shunned.
It should've made me stop, but instead, it made me smarter about how to lie online. I made a second account—it was an identical Amanda Williams account, with the same photos—but I made sure to block everyone I went to school with. I became paranoid and obsessed with the account. After ninth grade, my mom switched me from my high school into a vocational school because I was being bullied. But the new school gave me more free time, which meant I spent more time online. What should've been an opportunity to reclaim my social life became fuel for my catfishing. I spent all my free time on social media, building Amanda Williams's life like an avatar onThe Sims.
I became meticulous about how I crafted the accounts: I scouted out pictures of pretty girls, but none that were too popular. If someone has over 1,000 followers on Instagram, there's a risk that someone could recognize that their photos are stolen. Once the account is created, I start by adding people from whatever city I decide she's from. It doesn't matter who I add initially—those people are just "fillers." As Nev Schulman on Catfish can tell you, if you don't have enough friends on the list, then the account looks fake (and it probably is). So you have to have enough "filler friends," who are from the city you say you're from, to make it look legit. After I have about 150 of these fillers, I start adding the people I want.
I don't upload all of the stolen photos at once: I trickle them in, just like a normal person would. I always find the girl I'm stealing photos from on Facebook, and I block every single person on her friends list. I've spent entire days doing this—actively blocking people who might catch on to the ruse—just to ensure that none of this person's friends will discover that I'm stealing her pictures for a fake account.
After that, I have to make subaccounts to convince people the account is real. If someone doesn't have any tagged photos, they're probably fake, right? So I make subaccounts—fake people who will pose as the fake friends of my fake profile. To do this, I choose videos from Instagram and post them on Facebook. I've learned how to use Photoshop to fake "proof" signs, to show that the account is "real." If I had to give people advice about the internet, it would be: Don't trust anything. It doesn't matter if somebody sends you a "proof" picture. If it looks too good to be true, it probably is.
When I was Amanda Williams, people cared about me. When I was the real me, I was invisible.
Even though everything on the accounts were fake—the pictures, the backstories, the friends—they made me feel the most like myself. On the fake accounts, I could open up to people in a way that I couldn't in real life. Other girls my age had boyfriends and best friends, but I had my MySpace friends—people who cared about me, who let me vent, who asked me about my day. When I was Amanda Williams, people cared about me. When I was the real me, I was invisible.
I've never asked for money from my profiles; just attention. It felt good to have someone call me "beautiful" or "sexy," even if I knew they weren't talking about me. I've never had someone call me that in real life—instead, people have called me a "land whale," because I've been overweight most of my life. I'm too scared of the rejection, of the vulnerability that comes with being me. I'm too scared of someone telling me I'm ugly, I'm fat, I'm disgusting, and I'm not worthy of love.
I had one relationship through the fake accounts that felt like love—or at least, as close to "love" as you can get on the internet. Eventually, I broke down and told him that I wasn't who I said I was, hoping that he would understand. He shut down and never spoke to me again. I've been tortured by that for years: Could I have had that relationship on my own? And where would I be now if I hadn't lied? There are people out there who make fake accounts because they are sociopaths—and maybe I am one—but I've felt heartbreak from these accounts, too.
I know that what I've done is wrong, deceitful, and very hurtful. It's become a sick addiction, and I've carried on my fake, internet relationships at the expense of having relationships in real life. There are times that I've befriended people for the sake of stealing pictures from them, and so that I could ask them, "What does your hair look like these days? Send me a picture." Most of my real friendships have been lost for the sake of manipulation.
Over the past eight years, I've made over 20 accounts. Those are just the main accounts—if you count the subaccounts, then it's probably ten times more. Throughout my life, this has been the only thing that has given me stability. The relationships I've had through fake accounts are the only ones I can count on to answer the phone when I call, or respond to a message. I never had that in real life.
The catfishing isn't fun anymore—and the fun that I had isn't worth the anguish and emptiness that I feel today. I'm 21 now, and I've never had a real friend, a real relationship. I've never had a job. I wasted all of my teenage years doing this. I've isolated myself so much that now, whenever I'm with groups of people, I get severe anxiety. I can barely leave my house, because the entire world that I've created for myself is inside of my computer.
I'm in therapy now, but I quitting is harder than I ever thought it would be. I only have one fake account still active, but I don't know how to let it go. The catfishing is part of me. I'm still so addicted, it feels like if I were to quit, I would have nothing. I would be nothing. My existence hinges on this fake account, because it has defined who I am for so long. I spent eight years guiding Amanda Williams through friendships and relationships, adapting her interests and hairstyles, and building the girl I wanted to become. But while Amanda Williams grew up, I never gave myself the chance.
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