Photo via Flickr user Mingle MediaTV
Nev Schulman of the Catfish documentary and television show has a new book called In Real Life. In the book, he explores how we behave and misbehave on social media. As depicted in the Catfish documentary, Nev was a victim of catfishing, which is what happens when someone poses on the internet as someone other than him or herself. In Nev's case, he thought he had fallen in love with a beautiful young woman he met online who made thousands of dollars off of her prodigious little sister’s paintings. In reality, however, he was corresponding with a lonely middle-aged woman. Thanks to his harrowing personal experience and his TV show, in which he investigates the fake online relationships of others, Nev has become an expert on catfishing.
Nev is a very personable and attractive guy. Despite some misbehavior in college (car crashes, drug dealing, shitting in the cereal dispenser in the Sarah Lawrence cafeteria), Nev has become a guiding force who desires to teach the next generation how to live honest and productive lives. When he came to my play, Of Mice and Men, we talked for a bit. At first he was a conundrum to me because I wasn’t sure if he wanted to be an actor, a filmmaker, or what. He had been a performer in the movie, and he was a photographer by trade, but he didn’t seem to be pursuing either of those paths. He said he wanted to be a public figure, a teacher, and/or a politician.
Nev’s book begins as a fun journey into the world of lying on the internet, but it extrapolates into the larger phenomenon of avatars—everybody has one on social networks. Nev quoted Facebook's estimate that something like 8 percent of its accounts are false fronts. That means there are about 83 million fake profiles passing themselves off as real people. These fakers take on different personae, sexes, professions, races, and classes. The alternate persona serves as a kind of fantasy fulfillment. The fake poster’s imagination is bolstered by real responses from non-faking correspondents. If other people online begin to interact with a fake account as if it were real, the person behind it will feel that his alter ego is that much more genuine and will better be able to assume the persona. This feedback loop generates real emotions in the person behind the mask and pushes him to identify with their created persona’s interactions even more. In fact, this is actually how acting works, at least the kind that I practice. You build a character, inside and out, you create his backstory, you create his look and physicality, and then you fuel him with your own emotions. Underneath a created character are the genuine emotions of the actor, which shine through and make the character feel real. This is exactly what happens when a person catfishes online.
Sometimes this role-playing is benign, and other times it can turn insidious. If a person is able to erase some physical aspect of himself and be someone he thinks is prettier, then it is understandable that one might get sucked into such behavior and even become addicted. It’s like liposuction in the digital world—don’t work for the body you want, just change it artificially. Obviously problems arise when relationships are made in the digital world and the participants try to carry them over into the actual world. I suppose when the at-home accoutrements can provide enough physical stimulation that the online avatars can interact with one another while the devices stimulate the bodies, then the catfish will be able to hide forever and the online persona will even be close to the real persona. Where does reality end and virtual reality begin? If our bodies and physical circumstances are only half of what we are, when we take on another layer of personality, what does it matter that it is digitally altered?
There are also the catfish cases that turn bad, where the emotions and attachments elicited by the false identities cause the subjects to take action in the real world. Just take a look at the documentary Talhotblond, which is about a 40-year-old married man who impersonates a 20-something veteran in order to impress a younger woman online. His persona allowed him to escape from his failing marriage and be the attractive young hero that both he and his online love interest wanted him to be. Unfortunately, the feelings generated by this false relationship possessed him so much that he ended up killing a younger man the woman began conversing with. In the end, it turned out that the young woman he became obsessed with wasn’t even a young woman.
The important takeaway I got from Nev's book is that everyone creates an alternate persona online. When we Facebook or Instagram, we are not putting up photos of our true selves. Instead, we are creating collages of our best, most interesting moments. We are creating an ideal version of ourselves. So even if we aren’t posing as a male supermodel when we really weigh 300 pounds and work at Chili’s, we are all still doing a bit of catfishing.