I am not the type of woman you pick up in a bar. I am not a workplace crush. I’ve never browsed the missed connections on Craigslist, because that would require a successful interaction with a total stranger. I am the type of woman you meet online. I’ve had three long-term romantic relationships and all of them started over the internet. I’m not referring to online personals, which to me don’t really count; sites like OKCupid and eHarmony are, like their analog equivalents of alt-weeklies gone by, simply a way to facilitate meeting people as quickly as possible, whether for the purposes of finding out if a “real” connection is there or scoring an easy hookup. Instead, I met these men further out on the web, and the specific contours of our relationships could double as snapshots of the internet over the past 10 years.
In 2003, one month after I turned 15, I met my first boyfriend, C. He was a friend of a childhood friend; she’d known him through a message board for a couple of years, but never intended to meet him. At her urging one afternoon, I dropped him an instant message. A few years later, he’d dump me via email using the lyrics to The Smiths’ “Miserable Lie”; our fate was sealed by an argument over AOL Instant Messenger. (The damage: Immediately unfriended on MySpace and LiveJournal; blocked on AIM for a month or two; never friended on Facebook, mostly because he never joined Facebook.)
In 2009, six years after my first interaction with C, J added me on Facebook. The story behind that add, I later found out, was cute in a slightly stalker-y way. Our lone mutual friend had thrown a party, and he had seen my picture and profile after I RSVP’ed yes on the invitation. He claimed he went to the party in order to meet me, and when I didn’t show up, he took matters into his own hands. We’d later break up after he got into a relationship with a co-worker, seemingly out of the blue; that tangle also began on Facebook. (The damage: Blocked on Facebook; one snarky comment left, anonymously, on his Flickr account of bad iPhone drawings and contemplative, high-contrast selfies.)
In 2011, I met B for brunch, the culmination of months of ping-ponging tweets about Adele, the weak contenders for 2011′s Song of the Summer (LMFAO, GTFO), and flirty #twitterafterdark dispatches about butts. He had an ambiguous presence on Twitter, and I only found out his identifying details after he sent me a direct message about meeting. (This message caused me to promptly Google him and scour the results.) We recently broke up because, among other things, we had too many text-message arguments. (The damage: Unfollowed on both of his Twitter accounts for now; kicked out of my Facebook news feed.)
Ten years ago, it was easier to have a fake identity online; in part this was because there were fewer ways to detect if someone was stretching the truth. C shares a named with a Swedish computer hacker who’d been famously arrested, so Google was of little help; I went as far to request a phone book from the Long Island county where he supposedly lived. There was no Facebook—or Twitter, or Tumblr, or OkCupid—so the likelihood of figuring out his identity there was impossible. (Neither of us had MySpace until 2005, long after we’d met in person.) Reverse image search—which Catfish creator/mediator Nev Schulman uses in each episode of his MTV show about the veracity of online love, and which almost always unravels a fake story—was not introduced until 2011.
In other words, when I met this guy I was sure I loved a year or so after we first talked, I was only about 80 percent certain he wasn’t going to pull a gun on my “safety friends” and kidnap me. Oh to be young, in love, and with three hours of dialup internet access a day!
With J and B, the notion of deception honestly never entered my mind, yet it was all I could think about when I met C, more than a year after we’d started talking online and six years before the term “catfishing” had been invented by Schulman, who made a documentary about being taken in by his dream woman over the internet—only to realize that she was actually a figment of another woman’s imagination. I grew up in a town of 12,000 in northeastern Ohio; my mother still thinks the internet is not to be trusted. You can only imagine how rabid she was ten years ago.
Beyond fear, though, I felt shame. In 2013, meeting a suitor on Twitter is the stuff of Modern Love columns in the Times Styles section; in 2003, meeting a boyfriend over AIM was shameful. I couldn’t deal with the idea that my peers would assume I had to go online to meet a guy because I was weird and chubby, since the internet was where weird, chubby people could find likeminded weirdos and hide their chubbiness—so I lied about how I met C to my friends and my parents (hi Mom and Dad; please don’t hate me), and I did so for so long that I now strain to remember the real story. I told everyone we met when he attended a football game while passing through town with his older brother, who knew my friend’s older brother, (My friend, according to legend, introduced us because we both liked The Smiths.)
When Notre Dame linebacker Manti Te’o explained, in the aftermath of the scandal about his nonexistent online girlfriend Lennay Kekua, that he’d lied to his parents about meeting her in person, I understood a little too well. He feared, in equal measure, that his family would force him to end the relationship and succeed in convincing him that it was crazy to love someone he’d never met.
It takes both courage and foolishness to meet someone you’ve only ever known as a voice or a screen name, to walk up to someone who just drove 500 miles and kiss him on the lips in a restaurant parking lot while the friends you brought for safety watch. But what takes even more chutzpah is meeting someone from the internet while having a nagging feeling that he or she is not quite telling the truth—which is almost always the case on MTV’s iteration of Catfish. (The first season ends tonight.)
Catfish paints a picture rooted more in denial than in fear; that the potential danger involved with meeting a stranger is never discussed is the only thing I dislike about it. Yes, 2013 is different than 2003, and meeting up in real life with online pals and potential suitors is as commonplace as friending former classmates on Facebook. (Perhaps the forced mingling of friends in newsfeeds and on dashboards has fostered a more implicitly trusting atmosphere.) But—and I don’t mean to sound like my mother here—rule number one of meeting people from the internet is still the same: First contact needs to be made in a public place. Yet in almost every episode, Schulman, cameraman Max Joseph, and their attendant MTV crew travel with the protagonist to his or her suitor’s home. With all those people and cameras around, it’s highly unlikely that the “catfish” would try to physically harm his or her suitor. But it still sets a bad example for young viewers, who may be going through similar situations and who might attempt to recreate the show’s confrontational meet-up style.
That said, bad intentions are not the norm on Catfish. The deception doesn’t usually seem to come from an evil place—just a lonely one. (Well, except in Episode Four, in which the “catfish” turns out to be someone who’s spent years coldly executing revenge through online seduction.) Even when the tales are elaborately fictionalized (like in Episode Eight, where the young gay man Aaron pretends to be a beautiful girl in order to “date” the handsome jock Tyler), the deceiver is often just in search of a friend—and the recipient of the audience’s sympathy. While those who were deceived are rightfully pissed, I’m consistently amazed by their compassion just a few minutes or hours later.
Catfish has restored my faith in humanity and its capacity for forgiveness, but at its core it portrays denial. Why would the victims of these scams pretend to have never Googled their online suitors, and need Nev and Max to help them do the most basic online searches? I refuse to believe that the kind of people who would be internet literate enough to enter into an online relationship are neither web-savvy enough to use Google, nor deluded enough to think that all the lost chances to communicate further are the result of actual technological breakdown.
Habitually lying on the internet is not resigned to a certain type of person. I’ve known a number of perfectly lovely, attractive people who made up online personas and talked to many different people online all around the world. It’s a dirty little secret I’ve only learned after forging close, in-person friendships. The reasons for starting these relationships usually lie in loneliness, boredom, research, or a combination of the three. (One friend of mine spent her preteen years on a band’s message board, exploring their boundless imaginations by creating new personas with her sister. To this day, she remains friends with a few of the people she met there.)
One other emotion fuels Catfish: Hope. Once Nev gently reveals that the person they think they’ve been talking to most likely doesn’t exist, that emotion takes over. Nev, having been through this before, wears kid gloves as he follows through with the face-to-face meeting, no matter how bleak the prospect of truth. But that almost makes it worse. I’ve often averted my eyes when the “catfish” finally opens the door and reveals the fantasy to be just that. Watching the exact moment when someone loses hope and has his or her heart broken is painfully awkward, but it makes for some of the realest, most compelling television of our time—and judging by Twitter, I know I’m not alone in thinking this. I suspect that more people, especially those who came of age with social media and are in MTV’s target demo, have experienced online romance than are letting on. Not the fresh hell that is online dating, not “getting to know each other a little” before seeing how things go in real life—online romance. The kind that involves the fear, the doubt, and the embarrassment that transpires when two people care deeply for each other, despite never having breathed the same air.