For anyone addicted to MTV’s Catfish—a reality TV series spun off a popular 2010 documentary of the same name—the haunting question is: who are these people? Who decides to lure someone else into a protracted online relationship through pure and wildly superficial deceit? And, perhaps more pressingly: who will decide to catfish someone only after seeing it done on TV? Seriously, does Catfish encourage catfishing?
It’s not too crazy a question, given that the success of MTV’s Teen Mom spawned countless forums where young women discussed getting deliberately pregnant just to get on the show and traded the relevant casting info. Catfish is poised as the channel’s next flagship program, with countless impressionable young fans—it continues to be a top-tweeted TV show and generate huge buzz on the Internet. Not totally surprising, since that’s where most of its action takes place.
The hosts, Nev Schulman and Max Joseph, never condone the act of catfishing—Schulman is the victim in the original film and here takes on a Dr. Drew-ish fake-therapist persona—and yet even in the second season (still in progress) we’ve begun to track some disturbing signs: when Nev calls the culprits, they’re always already familiar with the show and its premise, and many seem eager to come clean about their duplicity, as long as it’s on TV. The lies have become more outrageous, and often more cunning.
The most recent episode, “Jen & Skylar” featured a bro who got cozy with lonely women online in order to “brush up his game,” only to cease all contact when a relationship reached its climax. Nev and Max were so taken aback at the guy’s inability to admit that what he’d done was cruel that they spent a good quarter of the episode telling him off and didn’t even try to affect the usual semi-reconciliation.
The show disparages him as something of a hopeless sociopath, but he felt like a disturbingly average type. Other catfishers, when confronted about their actions, are tautologically evasive: “I was bored” and “Why not?” is how some have explained their motivations, which sounds for all the world like what I would say if someone asked why I was watching Catfish in the first place. When emotionally toying with people from across the country comes to seem like a game or even passive entertainment to an entire generation—and may net you a check from MTV—what hope do we have to foster transparency and trust online?
Ideally, the show serves to warn us about “falling for” people we’ve never actually met, though it’s hard to argue that it doesn’t open up a world of possibilities for a scam artist or career narcissist. I guess what I’m trying to say, at the end of the day, is that I’m not really “Miles Klee,” but a woman living in North Dakota who is ashamed to be 6’2″ and therefore never goes out of the house. I just thought more people would click on my posts if I pretended to be a male writer in New York with a phony-sounding name.