Catfishing and the despair of online relationships

Screen shot of "Catfish" image.

SANTA CRUZ, July 30, 2014— The online urban dictionary defines catfishing as ‘the phenomenon of internet predators that fabricate online identities and entire social circles to trick people into emotional/romantic relationships (over a long period of time).’The social phenomenon has spawned a 2010 documentary film, as well as an MTV series. The fact that it is common enough to necessitate the above cultural legitimizations is an unfortunate testament to where we are as a society.

On the MTV series, “Catfish,”people who suspect their online relationships (usually romantic) are not what they seem, petition the super sleuthing team of Nev Schulman and Max Joseph to help them. Using a combination of objective common sense and basic computer skills, the duo rush to the aid of the aggrieved catfish-ee to bring truth and closure to the situation. Watching the show, viewers will experience a curious mixture of awkward voyeurism and shock. Unless someone has been on the receiving end of this cruelty, it is hard to imagine an adult with any sense being so gullible.

With so much of our lives taking place online, it is no surprise that many people turn to dating or social networking websites for human interaction, whether it be for romance, networking, or simply a cure to their loneliness. Catfish take advantage of the anonymity the internet offers, combined with the hope and desperation of so many lonely people.

The urban dictionary suggests the motivations of catfish are revenge, curiosity, boredom, and loneliness. If the outcomes of the cases on the MTV series are any gauge, the antagonist rarely begins with any malicious intent. Events take on a curious momentum, and soon spiral out of control.

One episode of “Catfish”featured a man in his twenties, who had been involved in a romantic, intimate online relationship with a woman for a year and a half, though they had never met in person. The man was drawn initially to the attractive photos on the woman’s Facebook profile, and later to the intimate connections via text and phone calls. Though the woman purportedly lived in the same town, the man was repeatedly thwarted in his attempts to make actual contact with her.

In the catfish world, these fruitless attempts to meet in real life are massive red flags. If the person you are supposedly in a relationship with is frequently and suddenly ill when you have a date to meet, or if they are unable to video chat because of outdated technology, or some other excuse, there is a good chance they are a catfish.

The young man in this episode had set up dozens of meetings with this woman, all of which she either cancelled at the last minute, or stood him up outright. Still, he trusted and hoped for the best. She even told him she had been diagnosed with cancer, which resonated with him since his mother was a cancer survivor.

Nev and Max were able to track down the real woman whose photos were being used in the profile the man believed belonged to his beloved. The woman lived in a different state and had no idea that someone had lifted her photos for a different profile.

The “Catfish”team further deduced that the woman their guy had been talking to indeed lived in his hometown, and they called her, confronting her with the truth they had uncovered about the fraudulent pictures on her profile. She agreed to meet with them and the victim, and it turned out that she was someone he knew from a prior interaction on a dating website. She had started catfishing him as revenge for her feelings of rejection, but she admitted that, over the year and a half that she had been carrying on the hoax, she had developed deep feelings for her prey, and felt a special connection to him. She admitted to lying to him on several occasions, including the cancer diagnosis.

It all sounds very sick and psychotic. A horrible way to process feelings of rejection, and, in the case of the young man, a sad depiction of gullibility and desperation.

In this new age of internet connections, it is more important than ever to use simple common sense. If something seems to good to be true, it probably is. If somebody cannot or will not show themselves to you to prove that they are who they are purporting to be, they probably are not who they say they are. It is too bad that this phenomenon exists, let alone so common as to deserve a place in our cultural lexicon, but it is real and, if you are not careful, it could happen to you.


Russ Rankin writes about hockey, music & politics. You can follow him on Twitter. He also sings for Good Riddance and Only Crime. Find out what he’s up to by checking out his website.

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