If you thought this would be about the best lure, rod, or fishing hole...surprise! Catfish has been hijacked! It is now a term used to describe someone who, for whatever reason - through whatever motive, tries to engage people in fake online relationships. Those who do this for fun or for torment are doing serious catfishing.
If you aren't familiar with the term, you should check out the film "Catfish." It is a documentary that follows Nev Schulman, a photographer, and his online relationship with an 8-year old who paints incredible reproductions of his photos and sends them to him. Through Facebook, phone, and text, he builds a relationship with the girl, her mother, and ultimately an online romantic relationship with the older sister. The film follows these relationships initially because of the talent and contact with the 8-year old, but then begins to change as the relationships progress. Though the film was released in 2010, I don't want to give away the best parts here, it's way too interesting not to watch and discover on your own. You can rent it on Amazon.com or check listings for a replay on your cable or satellite provider. The authenticity of this particular story has been questioned but not broken, regardless, there is no doubt that it happens.
In fact, it happened just recently to Manti Te'o, a linebacker from Notre Dame and Heisman Trophy finalist. Te'o was front-and-center in college football this past fall when it was announced that his grandmother and girlfriend had both died the same day, September 11, within hours of each other. He went on to lead his team in a big win over Michigan State and collect 12 tackles on his own. In the end, it turns out that Te'o's girlfriend never existed. The story of the non-existent girlfriend broke in January on Deadspin.com. Controversy is still swirling as to whether or not Te'o was in on the hoax, but either way, someone was again engaging in a fake online persona. The perpetrator of the hoax turned out to be Ronaiah Tuiasosopo. He spoke with Dr. Phil and mimicked the voice he used when he pretended he was Te'o's girlfriend when speaking to him over the phone and on voice mails; and he addressed many questions about why he did what he did. Te'o has maintained that he truly believed that the person he was Facebook friends with and exchanged letters, texts, and phone calls with, was the woman he believed to be his girlfriend. When interviewed by Katie Couric, Te'o said his biggest lie was the one he told his father. When asked if he had seen the girlfriend, Te'o replied "yes," but he was choosing to interpret "seen" very specifically saying that he was never directly asked if he had seen her in person (which he hadn't). He was embarrassed to admit that he had, had a relationship to this extent (the relationship supposedly began in November 2009) and yet he had never met the woman in person. It turns out that Tuiasosopo used photos of a former classmate to create the persona and act it out through the Facebook page. Questions have been raised about the relationship between Te'o and Tuiasosopo, if any actually exists outside of the fake identity that Tuiasosopo purported.
There are many theories about how this story began and then snowballed, but it remains a relevant story for many. How do you know that the person you are communicating with online is really who they say they are if you have never met them in person or knew them prior to "friending"? What do you think? Do you have "friends" that you only know through social media, online dating, or other online communication? Do you have friends who have? If you have kids, do you monitor who they "friend"?
The phenomenon is interesting, a little scary, a little sad, and a lot to consider. If you're interested in seeing other examples of catfishing, all you need to do is Google it. You can also see Nev Schulman investigate instances of possible catfishing on the MTV series Catfish. For some, it seems like just another prank, but for many it seems like a disorder or even an addition to take on these false identities online.
I'm curious to know what others think about the Manti Te'o story and about catfishing in general.