Are You Friends with a Catfish?

Ever since the sordid story of social media deception involving Notre Dame linebacker Manti Te’o hit the news in early 2013, the concept of catfishing has gained more widespread recognition. But what does the word really mean, and where does it come from?

[Credit: ©iStockphoto.com/Skip ODonnell 2012 ]

Credit: ©iStockphoto.com/Skip ODonnell 2012

When someone is catfishing, they are assuming a false identity online for the purpose of romantic deception. It isn’t limited to online dating sites; catfishers can create fake Twitter, Facebook, or LinkedIn accounts, or even multiple accounts of fake “friends” to lend legitimacy to the ruse.

Where does the term come from? Internet-savvy readers might assume that catfishing stems somehow from the concept of phishing (sending e-mail that falsely claims to be from a legitimate organization in order to convince unwitting receivers to reveal PINs, passwords, and the like). Except for the underlying fishing metaphor, however, the two terms are not related.

Catfishing originally comes from a real marine practice. When live cod were shipped from North America to Asia, they would arrive mushy from inactivity, and their flavor suffered. Fishermen discovered that if you added a few catfish to the tank, they would keep the cod more active, resulting in higher-quality seafood.

The 2010 film Catfish made a reference to this practice. In this documentary (of which some have questioned the authenticity), co-directors Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman documented the growing online relationship between Ariel’s brother Nev and a woman named Megan, whom Nev met on Facebook. The relationship grows for months, online and over the phone.

After Nev notices that a few things don’t quite line up, he decides to drop in on Megan in her small Michigan town. What he discovers is not Megan, but Angela, and she’s not at all what he expected. Toward the end of the film, someone close to Angela mentions how fishermen added catfish in with the cod to keep them active, and makes the connection that Nev was like a catfish to Angela, helping her keep an active life.

The concept didn’t completely disappear before the Manti Te’o kerfuffle; in November 2012, MTV launched Catfish: The TV Show, a reality-based show about online dating and the truth and deception behind it.

All the talk of catfishing in the media underscores many of the warnings you’ve heard about the Internet since . . . well, since the Internet was a thing: Don’t believe everything you read. It is all too easy to misrepresent oneself online, so be wary of investing too much emotional energy into someone you know only through your computer monitor. Until you have a real-life conversation with someone in person, you don’t really know them.