How catfish culture jaded a generation about connecting online.
WORDS BY Ashley Branch // ART BY Miriam Taylor
Erica Fisher was a hot 21-year-old, 5-foot-6 blonde with a body worthy of any Sports Illustrated swimsuit cover. At least that’s who she was online. After school she would rush home, turn on the family computer in the basement, and tune out the world for hours as she immersed herself in her own universe, one where she was the beautiful blonde bombshell who all the guys wanted, waited for, and flirted with. That world was an AOL chat room.
One guy in particular worshipped her curves in her profile photo. He was attentive, charming, and mysterious. And for three months the two of them were virtually inseparable. When her parents discovered the relationship their daughter found online, they banned her from using the family computer. More importantly, they banished her from paradise.
Beyond the AOL chat room existed a reality where Fisher was 13 years old, battled with self-esteem issues daily, and had few friends. She had even less experience with boys. “I wasn’t getting the attention the popular girls were getting in middle school,” Fisher says. “I wanted someone who would give me attention.” Now 22, Fisher realizes her online escapades in the early days of AOL were the beginnings of a cultural phenomenon that would capture millennials and MTV: Catfishing.
Nev Schulman ’s 2010 documentary Catfish and his namesake reality series chronicle online dating hoaxes, exposing how technology makes the art of deception even more insidious. And if you haven’t been a victim, then you’ve been a witness to the culture turning the World Wide Web into a web of lies.
In 2013, America watched as Notre Dame football star Manti Te’o learned the truth about his online relationship with Lennay Kekua, who never existed. That same year, Nielsen Twitter TV Rankings listed the MTV series as one of the top 10 series of fall 2013 with an average of 189,000 tweets per episode. Now in its third season, Catfish: The TV Show has broadened its range of online dupes to include business frauds and those who catfish for revenge.
Stanley Aronowitz, co-author of Technoscience and Cyberculture, points out that the chances of finding humanity in the online realm are slimmer with such ample opportunity to present fantasies. “What humanity is about is conflict, stress, problems of disapproval, and problems of anxiety about whether [people] are loved or liked or even tolerated,” Aronowitz says. “The online culture relieves them of all that.”
But millennials are now trading one anxiety for another. A Pew Research Center nationwide survey in February about millennials and social trust found that the generation who invented the “like,” retweet, and reblog had more anxiety about sharing and trusting than its predecessors. Only 19 percent of people ages 18 to 33 said most people can be trusted, compared to 31 percent of Generation X and 40 percent of baby boomers. Catfish culture is producing a nation of skeptics afraid to share, befriend, and, more importantly, love. They refuse to leave real connecting and real heartbreak to virtual chance.
“What humanity is about is conflict, stress, problems of disapproval, and problems of anxiety about whether [people] are loved or liked or even tolerated,” Aronowitz says. “The online culture relieves them of all that.”
Christie Lam now jokes with her fiancé Greg Dizzia about how, for all she knew, he could have been an ax murderer or a psycho when they began their online relationship in 2011. But initially she feared that Dizzia, whom she had never met, wasn’t who he appeared to be. An online business relationship quickly flourished into romance after eight months of calls and emails. Lam knew she wanted a relationship,but she also knew she didn’t want to be catfished.
“One day I just Googled him,” says the 26-year-old.
She soon found the freelance graphic designer’s online portfolio and his social-media accounts. With each site and page she stumbled upon, her fears of falling for the wrong man, perhaps even a nonexistent one, were alleviated. For the first time she was able to see his face — porcelain skin framed by chestnut hair — and was finally able to put that face to the man she was falling for. “[Now] I for sure know that he exists,” Lam says.
Surprisingly, Lam’s decision to do a Google search on Dizzia isn’t the norm. Sadie Elder, assistant professor of psychology at High Point University in North Carolina who teaches a class called says many people don’t consider vulnerability when connecting online. “I think that people realize the generic risks involved in letting a stranger come to your house [but] that we don’t necessarily think about the dangers involved with giving a stranger access to ourselves and to our hearts,” Elder says.
William Ward, a social media professor at Syracuse University in New York, says that in the search for genuine relationships online, most people make themselves vulnerable by willingly turning a blind eye to catfish red flags. “It’s easy to deceive yourself,” Ward says. “They want to be trusting. As long as people don’t check it out, they can believe what they’re told.”
Digital literacy also contributes to why people continue to fall for catfish bait, including fake social-media accounts. “Most people who you would think are digitally literate [aren’t],” Ward says. Despite being pegged as digital natives, the only generation not forced to adapt to the Internet, social media, and mobile technology, millennials remain just as clueless about the Internet as older generations. “It’s not something inherited by just being around it,” Ward says. In fact, a study published in 2011 found that three out of four college students don’t search Google efficiently.
Yet despite the dangers lurking online, people continue to search for human connections. “You see people turning to this avenue to make the social connection because, we as humans have evolved in a way that we need the connection,” Elder says. “We’re going to seek it out if we can.” She also says that, for many, a general buffer against the belief that bad things will happen to them fuels online connecting.
In Kassandra Richards’ (whose name has been changed in this story) case, however, low self-esteem paired with blind optimism made her a catfish target for three years.
She was 20 years old when she met him on Tumblr, and within two months they had exchanged numbers. “He started calling me ‘baby’ and ‘gorgeous,’” Richards says. “It had been a while since anyone had referred to me that way. It was very nice.”
Yet the Lagrangeville, N.Y., native kept her reservations about the mystery man from Iowa who had entered her virtual world and started to impact her real life. They exchanged photos, but his always remained outdated. His webcam was always broken. They rarely spoke on the phone. The red flags overflowed along a series of excuses and lies.
She fell in love with him within seven months. “I felt like we were in a relationship, and it was just long distance,” says Richards. “But at the same time there were so many things about his life that I didn’t know about.”
Richards felt shorthanded in sharing her life with her online boyfriend without reciprocity. She feared she had left herself too exposed too quickly. Her friends and family did too. When the 22-year-old’s younger sister confronted her, the reality of her online relationship finally hit home. “She sat me down and said, ‘You think this is the only kind of relationship that you deserve. And that’s not true,’” Richards says.
She eventually had enough. So did he. Three months ago he stopped calling. He stopped texting. And Richards finally stopped wondering about the possibility of a real future with someone she had never met face-to-face. Now single, Richards says her search for love will happen off-screen—and in-person.
How to Catch a Catfish
Social-media and cyber-issues expert Tyler Cohen Wood shares her top tips for spotting a catfisher from her new book Catching the Catfishers: Disarm the Online Pretenders, Predators, and Perpetrators Who Are Out to Ruin Your Life.
BY ASHLEY BRANCH
Ask for face time. Asking for a Skype conversation or an up-to-date photograph eliminates catfishing fears. Wood says that if someone refuses to do either, “there’s a reason why they won’t do it” — and that reason likely isn’t a good one. She recommends a Google search for each photo to ensure it doesn’t appear somewhere else.
Enlist your friends. There’s power in numbers, so let an extra set of eyes scope your online relationship for red flags. “Have your friends look at the conversations,” Wood says. “Your friends know. They can tell.”
Check their social history. Most people have a digital past; beware if your online partner doesn’t. “You want to look at someone’s social media presence that you’re talking to,” Wood says.
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