The 2010 documentary Catfish, directed by Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman, was a complete shock to me. I knew this stuff was going on in the world wide web, but I didn’t know it was this intense, this real. It was filmed over a span of months by the main character’s brother, Ariel Schulman, who focuses on his brother Nev’s relationship with the Wesselman family; in particular, with a young woman named Megan. What the two brothers discover would change their online habits forever.
Watching the documentary, I had a feeling that something awful was going to happen. All of the information that “Megan” revealed about herself–photos, music, artwork, etc.–seemed too good to be true. Plus they were coming in at rapid speed, almost impossible for someone who claims herself to be an artist. Nev also figured it out pretty quickly: he searched up the music covers on YouTube, finding the originals in no time. Everything was just too copied, too exact. But Nev didn’t stop there. He and his crew went all the way to Ishpeming, Michigan from New York to find out the whole truth. It seemed like Nev didn’t want to believe any of this was happening at first; he even tried quitting the whole thing, stopping the documentary and moving on with his life, maintaining the relationship he had with Megan. But he had to find out eventually that Megan wasn’t real, that she and all of her friends were made up by an older woman named Angela, who had made these fake Facebook profiles using stolen pictures of other people, and living vicariously through this “Megan” and her friends. I was especially shocked when Nev decided to spontaneously visit them in Michigan, testing his luck despite how potentially dangerous the situation could have been. I never would have done the same, so I really commend him for that. He handled the situation very maturely, approaching Angela in a calm manner and offering his support instead of berating her. I’m even more surprised that the two still remain friends, despite their whole relationship being built on a lie.
No matter what social platform you are using (Facebook, Tumblr, RPG video games, and dating sites such as PlentyofFish and Match.com) these online “relationships” that are happening everywhere around the world are built on one thing alone: trust. It doesn’t matter what kind of picture you put, what information you disclose, where you’re from or what you’re into. These people are entrusting themselves to someone they haven’t even met before. They’re revealing information about themselves in a somewhat “anonymous” way, because they can’t find the strength or means to do so anywhere else. Like Angela, they live vicariously through their fake profiles, their over-exaggerated facts and info; because it seems to be their only escape from reality. Angela herself even admits to Nev in her interview at the end of the film, “The personalities you met were just fragments of myself; of who I used to be, who I wanted to be, who I never could be.” It’s both really interesting and heartbreaking to hear this woman’s pain and deep struggle with herself.
Even her real-life husband, Vince, admits to Nev that Angela “expressed suppressed disappointment because she wasn’t able to pursue any of the dreams she had growing up.” He also makes a very interesting metaphor, the Catfish Theory (which inspired both the name of the film and its 2012 spin-off MTV series, Catfish) of people, comparing them to North American catfish that are used in fishing to keep the other fish active and fresh.
“There are so many people who are catfish in their lives, and they keep you on your toes. They keep you guessing; they keep you fresh. I thank God for the catfish, because we’d be dull and boring if we didn’t have someone nipping at our feet.” (Vince)
It’s pretty crazy how true this is. We, as dull and ordinary human beings, need variety in our lives. We need to keep ourselves young and fresh, and we do so in mainly two different ways. Either we are the do-ers, who make something of our lives ourselves through our own achievements; or the followers (like Angela), living vicariously through other people’s actions and lifestyles. If there is any moral lesson I got from watching this documentary, it’s that we need to take a stand. We need to start being Catfish, adding chapters to our own stories instead of sitting on the sidelines, watching life happen from afar. The ocean is deep; so dive in.