Did ‘Catfish’ Open our Eyes to the Risks of Online Dating?

by Cammy Madden

It’s been 10 years since the release of Catfish. Since then, we’ve watched as society’s view of internet dating has flipped. At one time, finding a partner online was essentially considered a final resort for sad and lonely people. Often this method was associated with crazy cat ladies and basement-dwelling gamer guys. Nowadays, it’s common for single people to have at least one dating app on their phone. In fact, the dating game now resembles the platforms we use for finding restaurants or searching for holidays. But for most people using these platforms, or the online arena in general, there’s always that one risk: the infamous catfish.

What is a Catfish?

The term ‘catfish’ has come to take on a slightly new meaning since its origins in the 2010 documentary of the same name. Nowadays, a catfish is someone whose online profile is purposefully misleading. There are essentially two types of catfish: someone who uses particularly flattering and misrepresentative photos of themselves to create a more attractive online persona. The other is someone who uses photos of somebody else entirely and simply pretends that it’s them. Generally speaking, the dangerous catfish only fall into the latter of these two categories.

A Summary of the Documentary

I found one thing particularly fascinating about this documentary. Even when you know where the journey ends, the beginning seems entirely innocent. Catfish primarily follows Yaniv ‘Nev’ Schulman. Nev is a photographer and has been contacted by Abby, an 8-year old art prodigy who has painted one of his photos. The documentary involves Nev’s brother Ariel, and friend, Henry Joost as directors, and follows the budding relationship between Nev and Abby’s family through social media and phone calls.

To cut a long story short, Nev develops a relationship with Abby’s sister, Megan. We see audio clips of her singing and we see them talking on the phone. Nev’s online friend list soon includes a growing number of Abby and Megan’s family and friends, including their mother, Angela.

As suspicions are raised through finding the original versions of “Megan’s” songs, the possibility that Nev has been lied to at every turn soon becomes apparent. It’s here that the documentary flips from being about an art prodigy, to discovering the truth about Nev’s online lover. What follows is an increasingly disturbing web of lies leading to one shocking revelation: Angela has played the role of Megan and almost all of her family and friends.

This documentary led to the creation of an MTV reality show, Catfish: The TV Show. Unlike the documentary though, the TV version actively pursues potential catfish. It’s dressed up as being about helping online partners finally meet their other half, but it’s realistically meant to display the drama, deception, craziness, and potential dangers of online dating.

The Heart of Catfish

The catfish in both the TV show and the documentary have one thing in common: deception. The major difference lies in their motivations. The TV show paints a picture of a scary world where your online partner might be anyone: your ex-boyfriend, a weirdo getting enjoyment from playing with the emotions of others’, or a 40-year old man pretending to be an 18-year old woman. The documentary, however, tells a rather different story.

When we follow Nev on his journey to uncover the truth, there are certainly moments of fear. As an audience, we are fully aware with each new step that there are ample ways that Nev’s journey could meet a grim end. One moment, in particular, stands out: Nev arrives at the farm that Abby, Megan, and Angela apparently live on. After peering through dark windows in the middle of the night, chills travel down your spine as you begin to wonder about the true identity of this online persona. Maybe I’ve seen too many horror movies and serial killer documentaries. I kept half-expecting Catfish to turn into a found footage movie. One where we never see Nev, Ariel, or Henry again…

But Catfish is less of a horror story and more of a drama. Angela is certainly a deceptive individual, but is she evil? No. Her motivations were never about causing pain or stealing money. Angela leads a tough life: she abandoned her pursuit of an art career to marry her husband, Vince. She spends her days caring for his two disabled sons from a previous marriage while also raising her own daughter, Abby. Angela is a woman who feels lost and alone.

Learn from Nev’s Mistakes

One truth is made clear: you can NEVER be 100% sure who you’re talking to online!

Nev received photos and videos of Megan. He talked to her on the phone, he found her friends and family on social media, and he had zero doubts about Megan’s existence. Catfish raises an unasked question and answers it: can you ever really trust an online persona? Nowadays, how do you confirm whether a person is real? Skype calls can use fake footage, Facebook profiles are incredibly easy to make, and many of us forget the famous saying, “if something seems too good to be true, it usually is.”

However, some dating apps have made improvements to limit the catfish threat. A prime example of this is the function of ‘requesting verification’, whereby you can request that a match verify their identity through the app. Similarly, you can verify your own profile in advance to offer some sense of trust and security to potential matches. Some dating apps market these features by suggesting you, “use photo verification to prove you’re not a catfish and ask matches to do the same”.

I guess the real question is, is this enough? Will we see a sequel to Catfish in a few years focused on someone who found ways to slip through the net of ‘identity verification’?

In Summary

Overall, Catfish makes us aware of the real risks of online dating (and online interactions in general). Movies and books may paint love to be this magical and fairy-tale concept, but in the real world, we can become blinded by love. The picture you paint of an online persona isn’t real. It’s little more than a fantasy: A story that we tell ourselves about who another person is. All social media is simply a mask that a person wears to appear a certain way to the virtual world. It’s the internet’s version of the Venetian Carnival Masks or the infamous Guy Fawkes mask. The confusing thing about these types of masks is that we often believe them to be real. But, a “personality” can be edited, photoshopped, stolen, cut, deleted, saved, hacked, and perfected. So, how can we possibly believe it to represent a true person?

Catfish does raise one question of particular interest. Is there such a thing is a winner? Or only the victims of a virtual system that allows the creation of fictitious worlds in order to escape reality?

Follow MovieBabble on Twitter @MovieBabble_ and Cam @BakedHaggis

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