In 1994, when the commercial Internet was in its infancy, I spent the night over a friend’s house and went online for the very first time. My buddy, like so many people back then, had an AOL account and he introduced me to the world of Internet chat rooms.
Being 13-years-old, it didn’t take us long to find our way into the “Lesbian Teen Girl” chat room, where we tried to pass ourselves off as a lesbian. It was all just a harmless goof to amuse us, but it taught me an important lesson about the Internet – everyone lies.
It took me all of five minutes online to adopt a fake persona myself. But it was something my mother said to me when I got home that has stuck with me ever since then. When recounting our exploits to her, my mom looked at me and said, “I bet everyone else in that chat room was also a teenage boy pretending to be a lesbian.”
At the time, that concept blew my mind. Sure, we had done it, but we thought we were so clever for having come up with our little scheme. Could everyone online truly be just as deceptive?
That was almost 20 years ago when the Internet was shiny and new. And it was my first day online. Now, it’s basically a given that the Internet is filled with bored or nefarious people pretending to be someone else.
I bring this up because the term “catfish” has been cropping up in the news a lot lately. Thanks to the documentary and TV show by Nev Schulman and the bizarre Manti T’eo saga, “catfishing” is quickly becoming a part of our lexicon.
I just don’t get it though. How are people getting swindled like this online? Are we really supposed to believe that 20 years after people began adopting fake AOL personas that people are still unaware of the concept? It’s become a TV trope and fodder for countless jokes. From the Nigerian prince who will share his wealth with the first poor sucker willing to give out his/her bank account number to the creepy fuckers on To Catch a Predator, I would think most Americans take online interactions with a healthy dose of skepticism.
And yet, we are supposed to believe that Nev Schulman, Manti T’eo and countless others are getting catfished left and right by opportunistic online predators? Call me overly cynical after two decades online (and more LOL cats and Rule 34 photos than the human psyche was meant to endure), but I just don’t buy it.
With Nev Schulman and the people who go on the TV show Catfish, I can only assume they do it for publicity. I’ve never seen the show, but I did watch the documentary and my theory on Schulman is that he had an inkling something didn’t add up, which is why he brought the cameraman along. He played it earnestly on-screen, but I think deep down he had a lot more doubts than he let on. He might not have known how it would turn out exactly, but he had to imagine that the girl he was spending so much time talking to wasn’t quite what she seemed. And wisely, he saw a way to profit off of this revelation.
Te’o's motives are a bit harder to deduce. Perhaps, as others have suggested, he and Ronaiah Tuiasosopo are gay. That’s probably the most logical conclusion. Or maybe he made up a girlfriend to get his teammates to accept him and it all got out of hand. Or maybe he really wanted to win the Heisman and thought a fake story about his deceased girlfriend would help win him votes (which thankfully didn’t work).
Again, call me a cynic, but I just can’t believe that Te’o really was a clueless victim. Especially with today’s revelation that it was Tuiasosopo on the phone with him the whole time doing a girl’s voice. All that time in their alleged relationship together and he never once tried to meet her in person or even Skype? Not even when she got sick and they spent all those hours on the phone while she was hospitalized?
Te’o grew up with the Internet as a given. He was raised in a world where lying online was the norm. I can’t believe Te’o somehow was totally unaware of this concept.
That being said, I do think a large group of people out there are getting catfished. No, it’s not guys like Schulman or Te’o that are the victims. It’s you poor souls who hear Schulman and Te’o's stories and actually believe they were swindled.
Joel Murphy is the creator of HoboTrashcan, which is probably why he has his own column. He loves pugs, hates Jimmy Fallon and has an irrational fear of robots. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org