When did catfishing become a norm in internet culture? As a person who grew up with the internet, I’ve always thought of it as a staple, like pop-up ads, torrenting movies and fake webcam girls in seedy sites where you watch TV series for free. I just saw it as something that happens to other people and that was that. It didn’t concern me. And I don’t waste time thinking about it too much.
But then, it’s hard not to ask yourself: Why do people do it? Why waste time fabricating an alter ego? Managing one life is already as hard as it is.
So to the best of my ability, I will break down why catfishing happens and how we should probably feel about it…or at least have a concrete understanding of why it happens without resulting in a lynch mob of spite.
What is catfishing apart from an MTV show?
People fabricate identities on the internet a lot. It’s what some people do as if it was a twisted game of real-life “The Sims.” It took me a while to learn the term for it, which was apparently catfishing.
Catfishing was coined back in 2010. It’s from a documentary by Nev Schulman, who was also the creator of the MTV show with the same name. His film tackles the lives of people who create fake profiles to manipulate others into believing an illusion.
As Psychology Today describes it, “The perpetrators have usually lied about one major characteristic such as their gender, weight, sexual orientation or job.” Sometimes it’s a scam for easy money, or an unhealthy outlet to battle insecurities, or just to ruin other people’s lives for fun. Whatever the reason, it always ends up the same way—people getting hurt mentally and emotionally.
Sometimes it’s a scam for easy money, or an unhealthy outlet to battle insecurities, or just to ruin other people’s lives for fun.
The hook, line and sinker a.k.a. How does it work?
“I wanted to be anyone but me—I wanted a different outcome, a different life. I wanted to be a different person. And with MySpace, I realized I could,” writes an anonymous contributor from VICE. The contributor starts narrating how their first catfish account started—how they grabbed photos from a popular girl in their middle school, crafted their fictional character and the attention they got from others online.
The reality show “Catfish” has a lot to say about how people build fake lives online. Some go the extra mile by making how-to tutorials. In this case, Brobible (of course,) did an honest-to-god step-by-step guide.
There are five steps: Know your mark (who would you scam), craft a believable backstory (identity theft), settle in for the long game (crafting the bullshit) and reap or deny (reveal yourself or ghost the person). Again, the result is almost always the same—trauma.
If it’s not for scamming, what is it used for?
Happy endings are rare when catfishing happens. I say rarely ‘cause The Atlantic profiled a woman whose catfisher became her cupid, matched her with her current husband. MTV even produced video listicles on “Catfish” happy endings. Not going to say it’s fucked up ‘cause life surprises you sometimes.
“I wanted to be anyone but me—I wanted a different outcome, a different life.”
There are some instances when cybercrime units do this scam as a tactic. For instance, a Vice journalist catfished a pedophile posing as a pro-anorexia coach. “To Catch A Predator” utilizes this tactic to lure pedophiles and sex-offenders by posing as an underage girl.
But like I said earlier, happy endings are rare when it comes to catfishing. Intention plays a big part in this, whether they do it out of insecurity or straight-up malice as they can lead to psychological scars and trust issues galore.
Mental health problems, who’s got them?
“If [you] watch [MTV’s “Catfish”] you’ll quickly discover that most people on the show are insecure and lonely, so they use their fictitious profile to escape the real world by creating an identity that embraces strength, confidence, and all of the other qualities they desire to possess,” writes Psychology Today.
Catfishers can blame their actions on a lot of things. Journalist Eric Vanman’s study concludes it can be their personal trauma, insecurities and more that led them to do what they do. But without the term “catfishing,” understanding this act is a little bit easier.
Take this logic from Psychology Today, “Catfishing is another form of bullying. If a person uses technology to cause repeated harm to another—then plain and simple, it’s cyberbullying.”
Do we fry a catfish crispy?
There are a lot of layers involved in analyzing the motivations of the perpetrator. But honestly, whatever a catfisher’s reason (if they’re not cybercrime personnel catching a predator), trauma doesn’t justify their actions. Quoting “Brooklyn Nine-Nine’s” Jake Peralta, “Cool motive, still (emotional) murder.”
“People have been dishonest and falsely representing themselves probably just as much over the course of history pre-internet. The internet just makes it sort of that much easier and accelerates that process.”
Removing the term catfishing out of the equation, it is deception plain and simple. It’s fraud and defamation and, in some cases, escalates to sexual predation. All of this exists outside of the virtual realm. It’s difficult to judge this phenomenon, since most of us have this divide between our real and virtual lives. Your real-Insta is different from your Finsta and there’s a reason for that.
But as Schulman said: “People have been dishonest and falsely representing themselves probably just as much over the course of history pre-internet. The internet just makes it sort of that much easier and accelerates that process.”
Art by Zaila Mae Urmeneta