Networked Personas, Catfish and Other Illusions

“Your Catfish Friend” by Richard Brautigan

If I were to live my life
in catfish forms
in scaffolds of skin and whiskers
at the bottom of a pond
and you were to come by
one evening
when the moon was shining
down into my dark home
and stand there at the edge
of my affection
and think, “It’s beautiful
here by this pond. I wish
somebody loved me,”
I’d love you and be your catfish
friend and drive such lonely
thoughts from your mind
and suddenly you would be
at peace,
and ask yourself, “I wonder
if there are any catfish
in this pond? It seems like
a perfect place for them.”

Manti Teo - (Photo by Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images)
Manti Teo – (Photo by Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images)

As Congreve said, “”Heaven has no rage like love to hatred turned, Nor hell a fury like a woman scorned.” No rage is more pure than the rage of one who has been taken in and knows it. And when woman scorned is a major media outlet, woe be unto the object of the fury.

The saga of Manti Teo, erstwhile Heisman contender from the University of Notre Dame, is not merely instructive. It fairly screams for sermonic adaptation. Here be dreams within dreams within dreams. We only thought Inception was fiction. Turns out it’s as true as true can be—or as true as anyone can weave a web of comfortably lovely untruths.

And to celebrate the achievement, we get to bandy a newly adapted word—from that most respectable of all bottom feeders, the catfish. The catfish is the new Eve of the Fallen Eden, the new Pandora of the celebrated Box, the new Jezebel to be thrown down from the window and torn apart by the dogs of public discourse.

The “new” term, which has evolved into the rarified advanced word-form of noun/verb, owes its origin to Nev and Ariel Shulman and their friend Henry Joost who created what is probably a faux-documentary, Catfish (2010), based on Nev’s “personal” experience. He “met” a person online and discovered over time that the person was faking parts of her networked identity. He decided to follow up anyway and plunge through the maze of conflicting messages to get to the bottom of who this person really was, though–given the nature of the film–all that is in doubt. Critics allege the film is too neatly packaged to be showing actual events. As a work, it may fall into the same genre as Exit Through the Gift Shop, another piece that mingles truth with dark irony to pack a message alongside an artistic prank (not quite as onerous as a hoax). Schulman has parlayed his work into an ongoing MTV series with the same name as his film that explores other incidents of “catfishing,” or being duped by a false online persona.

Another layer of irony is that the story about catfish and cod as told in the “documentary” is specious at best. As a boy living in the bottomlands of southeast Virginia, I pulled my share of non-predatory catfish from muddy freshwater creeks. In a funny twist, the story may actually derive from a book of sermon illustrations. As any good preacher knows, these lovely little gems are not always to be trusted. Regardless of the source, anyone who knows fish or fishing could tell you the story smells, well, you know. And this detail lends yet another touch of farcical comedy to the development of what is about to be a very common verb.

All recriminations aside, call this catfish Lenny Kekua in a fish story that grows more bizarre with the telling. If you don’t know the Manti Teo scandal, read about it here. Turns out the Lenny Kekua who died never actually lived, at least not in the flesh. Several major media outlets, including ESPN, were duped by the story that the star athlete was spending all his spare time on the phone with his dying love Lenny, all conveniently during the lead up to Heisman voting. It was a made-for-television drama that got made for television several times over by those who followed MT with great interest. MT apparently learned at some point that Lenny didn’t actually exist, that she was the creation of someone’s twisted imagination, that she was a special online plant who blossomed, lived a very short life and died a beautifully tragic death, all of which just happened to enhance and embellish the true-life story of the star athlete. Only it was all a lie. What we don’t know, and what is still unraveling, is how much and exactly when MT knew what we all know now.

Lars and the Real Girl
Lars and the Real Girl

The story is a strange confluence of S1m0ne (’02) and Lars and the Real Girl (’07)—the one movie about a digitally manufactured actress pushed on the public, the other about a desperately lonely man who is unaware that his girlfriend is a life-size doll.

Manti Teo, if he was truly duped (which many doubt) might be granted some slack here. Apparently the phenomenon of being “catfished” by a manufactured online persona isn’t that unusual. And it’s not as if the lines of personal identity haven’t already become blurred by technology anyway.

Who among us doesn’t want to be viewed in a positive light? We are all of us festooned with managed imagery every day, costuming ourselves for each role we play. Even the “genuine” among us who say they are declining to present a facade are, by their self-selection, presenting a carefully crafted image using loudly muted tones.

But the online Presence in which we are all granted an Avatar to stand in for our already altered selves, takes the notion of image management to a whole new level. The gamey face I see in the mirror upon waking may be beautiful in the sight of God but is clearly unfit for Facebook. In fact, I can carefully control those bits and angles of me that people see. I can make of myself a sort of digital commodity and the people who constitute the audience for all of my socially networked connections (including Twitter and Tumblr and Instagram and Pinterest and all the burgeoning legion of networking choices) create for me the illusion of a platform upon which I am perpetually posited. The imaginary crowd that “follows” me shares its love with comments, likes and favorites. If I am the rhetorical sort, I can scatter the seedlings of my thoughts upon the masses. If I am the emotionally needy sort, I can phish in any number of assorted ways for a cyberhug from my hundreds of besties. If I want to convert my audience of “friends” into a starter market for my wares, I need only self-advertise and create “pages” to be “liked.” It’s all about empowerment, right? And it has nothing at all to do with the marketing schemes of the people who were so obliging as to provide us with such platforms out of the sheer kindness of their hearts.

Are we all just a little catfishy? Are we all Lenny Kekua?


I don’t think so. At the risk of throwing the first stone, the ethical landscape has not really altered with the rise of all these new windows through which we can see and be seen. What has altered is the scope of opportunity, the target rich environment and the ridiculous ease with which one can deceive and be deceived. A lie by any other name is still a lie. And, as the high drama of the last couple of weeks has indicated, the fallout can be as radioactive as ever.

The moral, of course, is to have a care. Online environments are becoming increasingly accepting and even encouraging to catfish, many of whom believe they are just having a bit of fun. Anonymous pranskerism can be a heady rush for pimply geeks in their pajamas. But if we aren’t careful, this emerging brand of psychological vandalism may be the next common counseling concern as the victims line up for help.