Catfishing: A Hustle We Can’t Believe In

As the internet universe explodes with both professional and amateur coverage of the Manti Te’o dead-girlfriend hoax, I find myself caught between undulating waves of mind-boggling incredulity and empathetically experienced shame. The first words I am able to utter are noticeably flat: “Um, wow.” The comprehensive investigative reporting on Deadspin has left me in a tailspin; I don’t follow college football, so the exposè hits with the full force of all of its facts taken as a whole. The timeline of how this story unfolded in the media and how its veracity was disassembled reads like the journalistic equivalent of a hundred-car pileup or the longest game of Jenga ever played. What makes this story unique is not that someone pretended to be someone else on the internet and got away with it for awhile, but that the media coverage of the relationship between Te’o and Lennay Kekua brought an audience of thousands (and now, far more than that) into direct, somewhat embarrassing complicity with the hoax as it was exposed. As Nev Schulman, the co-creator and star of MTV’s Catfish self-servingly tweeted, “However this #Manti story ends, we are all the victims of a #Catfish.”

Schulman’s story, along with the instant credibility it garners in the Te’o situation, bears a notable similarity. The term ‘catfish’ refers to a person who creates a fake internet persona with the intention of luring others into intimate relationships. Nev Schulman was a victim of such a relationship, which was chronicled in the 2010 documentary film Catfish. Schulman eventually forgave the woman who perpetrated the hoax and has maintained a friendship with her, although they are not romantically involved, presumably because she’s not as hot as the fake pictures she posted to get him interested in the first place. From this angle, anyone who’s ever been put in the friend zone on some version of, ‘I like you, but not like that,’ should be able to understand the motivation.

On the MTV show, Schulman portrays himself as a liberator/companion of other hopeless romantics. These are those who are reasonably worried that their internet loves are also too good to be true, however, the reality show format comes with its own embedded skepticism. Schulman’s narration during the show’s intro, with the enticing invitation, “Catfish the movie was my story; Catfish the TV show is yours,” seems to suggest that the silver lining to finding yourself a victim of catfishing is the possibility of 15 minutes of fame. This is courtesy of Schulman himself, who, for his part, has his 15 minutes extended with every episode that airs.

By my count, there is a range of motivational fodder that might lead someone to catfishing, but it all stems from the same cesspool. First, the natural human desire for companionship, to keep loneliness at bay, underneath which could very easily lie a lack of self-esteem in one’s own ability to get people to like you. The distance the internet creates between people that have reason to believe that they will be rejected when judged on their appearance, functions as a screen where the content of their character can be judged first, before the other shoe drops. Behind this screen might not-so-ominously lurk the fat kid from band camp, the bullied tomboy who wonders which team she’s really playing for, the well-meaning introvert who stands by the bar at the club waiting for a ‘nice girl’ to look beyond his knock-off suit.

The Deadspin article suggests that the likely perpetrator in the Te’o-Kekua affair, Ronaiah Tuisosopo, may have already known Te’o, and that Te’o was not the first mark attracted using the fake Kekua persona. But some have implied that the easy-use aspect of technology at hand for catfish perpetrators is a reasonable excuse to believe in the unbelievable. What is troubling about this interpretation, is that the technology is far enough ahead of the game that even the thickest skull in the chat room should be able to smell a rat when the rat is whispering sweet nothings through cyberspace. All the while coyly avoiding any and all attempts to meet in a dark alley behind a restaurant somewhere (or in the case of Manti and Lennay, at the Notre Dame/Wake Forest game Kekua was cleared to attend but did not show for). There are such things as Skype and FaceTime, and there are such people as grandmothers born in the 1920s who have learned how to use them. Even more troubling is the fact that a news organization as high profile as CBS had the chutzpah to broadcast a story on the Te’o tragic love story that included a direct quote from a person who we now know does not exist.

The first episode of MTV’s Catfish features a female catfisher named Chelsea, who uses the persona of Jamison, a young, hot, fairly accomplished male to attract a marginally hot, but obviously not lesbian ingénue. By the end of the episode, Schulman has drawn out the fact that Chelsea, at least in part, used the Jamison persona in an attempt to explore her own sexual orientation.

With this example, it would not take an unfathomable leap to consider that, perhaps/maybe, Tuisosopo had feelings for Te’o that he may not have considered appropriate (they say he was a church musician, after all), and sought to explore them in a way designed to avoid a painful and humiliating rejection. This gets stickier when questions abound as to how much Te’o knew about the hoax, and when he knew it, and it would seem to behoove us to stop short of adding a gay cover-up to the brew and focus on the ‘what now?’ aspect of the story. As evidenced by the nearly 300 million hits that come up when you Google “ Manti Teo hoax ,” it’s quite an interesting story, not least because, unlike any of the people featured on Catfish, Manti Te’o actually had tangible gains (ahem, Heisman) attached to his publicity boost à la 15 minutes.

The cat’s been out of the bag for reality TV for some time now. We’ve all seen the production tricks and lightly scripted-ness of our favorite subplots, and no one expects the people who get engaged on The Bachelor to stay together, even if there is a big wedding. We believe because we want to believe, because its fun to believe and because we’re not hurting anyone by believing. We watch scary movies and we jump when we’re supposed to, though we know we are in no danger. A dollar under a pillow is still a dollar, even if it’s not from the Tooth Fairy.

The problem with this Te’o story is that there’s no dollar. We went to sleep with a tooth under our pillows and woke up to discover that someone stole the tooth and the pillow. If it’s true that Te’o didn’t find out about the hoax until getting a December 6th phone call from his dead girlfriend, we can safely assume that he woke up to discover that, all this time he thought he was living the good life, he was actually living a nightmare. Can we really blame him for continuing to play the grieving prince, when the alternative was what he is going through now as a perpetually trending topic on Twitter and every other social networking site? And if it turns out he was in on it, will anyone really care as long as he keeps his stats up in the NFL? It seems unlikely that he will forget how to play football because the world found out he’s kind of an asshole.

On the “Trina and Scorpio” episode of MTV’s Catfish, Scorpio (real name Lee), who chose a lovely picture of a male ‘entertainer’ with which to snag his dame, plainly admits that he was afraid Trina wouldn’t be interested, if she saw what he really looked like, and gives an old college try at reinforcing how real his feelings for her were. Trina is understandably hurt, and it’s pretty clear that Lee is not her type, but, for a moment, we are allowed to hope that there might actually be something to the idea that a person can be loved because of who they are and not who they look like. But when we see Trina get all giggly and googly when she’s allowed an opportunity to Skype with the ‘real’ Scorpio, we know that’s all balderdash. Fairy tales are real. The hotties get the skins and the notties get the bins. If only Lee had the good sense to go and kick the bucket before he agreed to meet her. Then maybe he’d have had a shot, once the shock wore off.

It would not surprise me to find out that Manti Te’o — provided he is, in fact, an innocent, if somewhat dimwitted, victim — had at least one moment when he thought he might still have a chance at forever with Lennay Kekua when she called him from beyond the grave. Whoever she was, she was a part of his life. Of course, the problem here is that, say it with me, she just simply wasn’t. She wasn’t anything at all he might have come home to, or rolled over and squeezed in the middle of the night. She would never be Brian Te’o’s daughter-in-law, reflecting perhaps the only truthful words Manti’s father said to a reporter at the South Bend Tribune during his son’s incredible final season at Notre Dame.

The great, unknowable and yet painfully obvious missing link is this: everybody is lonely. In this age of lightning-fast technological acculturation, where all we have to do is create a password and let the world come Tumblr-ing in, some might argue we have never been lonelier. We poke our high school crushes on Facebook, and assume they want to know about the nose picker we spied in the elevator on the way up to our chiropractor’s office, but we didn’t hear the receptionist ask us how our day was because we were too busy listening to some celebrity’s Spotify playlist in our earbuds. We get in bed at night, next to our honey and one watches CSI on TV while the other watches Anthony Bourdain on the iPad. Everybody is lonely. Even when we’re on a crowded subway car or waiting in line at the DMV or driving our cars with our kids prattling in circles and kicking the backs of our seats. Even when we’re on Tumblr, clicking through pictures posted by people we really admire because we think they’re more creative or cooler than us. Especially then. Manti Te’o, regardless of motive or intent is lonely, probably now more than ever. Ronaiah Tuisosopo is probably lonely as hell. All the lonely people want to be less lonely and they will catfish, be catfished, believe in catfish tales, and make mean jokes for 24 hours straight about catfishing on Twitter when the truth finally comes out. If Te’o gets a fly Mormon date out of this, that’ll be silver lining enough.

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