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It’s catfishing season! How to tell lovers from liars online, and more

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A celeb-targeting catfish has struck again: Mere months since Manti Te’o found himself outed for his online and very fake relationship, Criminal Minds and Dharma & Greg star Thomas Gibson has also found himself the victim of a catfish hoax.

And this time there’s a horrifying video to go along with it.

Now that catfishing has once again risen to the mainstream and the MTV show is in its second season, it’s time we review – because we are in the midst of an epidemic, people: The line between curating your social presence to interact with other users and creating a digital personality from scratch and having completely online relationships is getting thinner and thinner.

So here’s what we know (so far) about catfishing – until tomorrow when some new, crazy tale of Internet fakery emerges. 

1. Why is it called Catfishing?

Toward the end of Catfish the documentary, the movie’s protagonist Nev Schulman coins the term after talking to his personal catfish’s husband, who used to be a fisherman. 

“They used to tank cod from Alaska all the way to China. They’d keep them in vats in the ship. By the time the codfish reached China, the flesh was mush and tasteless. So this guy came up with the idea that if you put these cods in these big vats, put some catfish in with them and the catfish will keep the cod agile. And there are those people who are catfish in life. And they keep you on your toes. They keep you guessing, they keep you thinking, they keep you fresh. And I thank god for the catfish because we would be droll, boring and dull if we didn’t have somebody nipping at our fin.”

Thus, the term catfish began meaning more than the humble, delicious fish. 

2. There are many types of catfish

A catfish can’t be singularly defined as “someone who lies.” There are many complex motivations and intricacies behind these people.

There’s the Revenge Catfish: This catfish feels he or she was wronged by you (or someone or something you’re tied to) and is pathologically creating this online romance simply to get back at you.

Catfish are not one size fits all, and sometimes they fall into various categories. But these are generally the parameters they stick to…

There’s the Bored Catfish. This catfish has an Internet connection and too much time on his or her hands. You may or may not know this person. It doesn’t matter, you’ve been randomly chosen for this strange sort of ensnaring entrapment. This catfish might also be motivated by nothing more than the fact that messing with you sounds fun. It seems like this is what Gibson was a victim of.

There’s the Secretly-in-love-with-you Catfish. This catfish harbors an unrequited crush on you, and for some reason doesn’t find him- or herself good enough in real life to go for it – which is what happened with the whole Manti Te’o fiasco.

There’s the Scary Catfish. This catfish is simply out to break hearts and cause chaos.

There’s the Lonely Catfish. This catfish usually has some sort of sob story and needs someone to talk too, and with a pretty picture and a Facebook profile, you’ve become that person. You end up becoming close to this person, sharing secrets and long talks – because, again, this person is lonely and you’re the path to solving this. This can be the most difficult catfish to deal with once they’re “outed,” because if you don’t care to continue the relationship, it’s usually because you aren’t attracted to them. Also, the lying. Always the lying.

Catfish are not one size fits all, and sometimes they fall into various categories. But these are generally the parameters they stick to – so keep your eyes/ears/monitors open.

3. The telltale signs you’re being catfished

If any of the following happen to you, you’re are very likely being catfished.

  • A random, attractive person starts talking to you online in some capacity.
  • You can’t get this person to use Skype, or his or her phone is often out of commission.
  • When a breaking point is reached, then and only then does the catfish say he or she will visit you. This visit doesn’t usually pan out, it’s just used as leverage to keep you interested in the interim.
  • Getting a physical address from them is incredibly difficult.
  • You never hear people in the background during your phone calls because they are made with extreme caution.

There are many more, but they’re too obvious to list. You get the idea. If we’ve learned anything from Catfish the TV show, it’s that these investigations are not difficult. (Facebook profile, phone number, Google Maps, Google reverse image search. And repeat.)

4. Catfish resources

catfish fake photoIf someone is sending you one of these pictures, you’re straight up being catfished.

There are not shortage of very fake profiles, and there are sites showing off the most commonly used photos. People have come across these images, liked them, and chosen them for their own faux profiles. They are usually models or “scene” personalities and post many of their own real pictures, giving catfish the ability to upload lots of different pictures of the same person so as to appear genuine.

But it’s just another case of “too good to be true.”

5. Catfishing for evil or entrapment (or both) is very real

We lightly reviewed this under the types of catfish, but it’s important to further talk about the different between catfishing and entrapment – or fame. Sometimes, for whatever reason, people create faux social profiles in order to lure someone out somehow. Think of parents who caught a child predator posing as their daughter. An artist pretending to be a gay man to solicit dick pics on Grindr for an art project. A suspicious girlfriend who wants to know if her boyfriend would Snapchat a stranger an intimate selfie. The groupie who wants to embarrass a public figure for no reason other than 15 minutes seconds of Internet fame.

The pop cultural awareness of catfishing has done two things: One, it’s introduced the entire concept to the mainstream and made it harder (hopefully) for people to get away with it. Two, it’s introduced the entire concept to the mainstream and made people more interested in doing it.

6. Catfishing: The condition

Catfish The TV ShowThere are many hilarious and shocking moments in Catfish, and riffing on celebs who were duped into making videos from their hot tubs is some tempting low-hanging fruit. But it’s important to start acknowledging that “catfishing” has some darker, deeper roots.

Research shows that young people are increasingly using the Internet and social media as a means for identity exploration, a tool to help us quantify ourselves. But this takes a more serious turn with users who are isolated in real life and experiencing what’s being called “Internet addiction” (although that’s very hard to define). This, coupled with our growing propensity to have intimate online relationships but keep the emotional walls up in the real world is creating some strange and sometimes disturbing psychological patterns.

Obviously not everyone who’s obsessed with Facebook and would rather Gchat than hangout isn’t going to go whole hog, make a fake profile, and troll the Internet for online lovers – but some people will. And it’s not necessarily all that funny. Which brings us to…

7. The slippery slope of catfishdom

Really, we’re all catfish. Have you ever edited your profile picture to look a little better? Do you untag? Have you ever faked a location check-in? We’re all guilty of bending the truth with our profiles to some degree – hell, it’s what all these platforms want us to do. Social media is a very aspirational beast and it’s not very surprising that it’s led to a catfishing epidemic.

The conspiracy theorist inside of me sees us sitting in pods living out our entire lives via Second Life-like surrogates. We get to create faces and bodies and then just insert our personalities into them and watch these holographic selves traipse off into the sunset with our partners from the comfort of our electronic cocoons.

Point being: Don’t be too quick to judge a catfish.

Editors' Recommendations

Molly McHugh
Former Digital Trends Contributor
Before coming to Digital Trends, Molly worked as a freelance writer, occasional photographer, and general technical lackey…
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