In defense of Catfished people

When I first saw the trailer for Catfish the movie in 2010, my mouth, like the rest of the people in the theater, hung open in disbelief–but not for the same reason as everyone else.

Most people were shocked this could happen at all–falling in love online, with someone you’d never met.

I was shocked other people engaged in online relationships. I thought I was the only one. Okay, correction: I was shocked other normal people engaged in online relationships. Nev Schulman, who now hosts the MTV reality show of the same concept, was a normal guy! And, like me, he’d somehow been sucked into this weird world of online love.

Let me back up for a second. To date, I’ve been involved in four significant online “relationships.” I’m definitely addicted to this setup. Honestly, my life should be sponsored by Skype. What I want people to know though, is that it is so easy to get involved in one of these relationships, and there’s always some deeper reason for it. Weirdos are not the only people engaging in these long-distance, mysterious internet rendez-vous.

The first of those four was by far the weirdest and commenced right around the time I saw the Catfish trailer, in the spring of 2010. Around this time a revolutionary website appeared on the scene, threatening to change social networking as we knew it: ChatRoulette.

For those who don’t remember, the concept behind ChatRoulette was both simple and terrifying in it’s simplicity. Log-on, no username required, and connect via video chat with a completely random stranger from any corner (or cave, or submarine…really) of the world. When you got sick of them, you’d simply hit “next” and they were gone forever.

I heard about ChatRoulette from the kind of friend you’d expect to hear about it from: the outlandishly tall, goofy, life-of-the-party, friends-with-everyone guy who watches a lot of porn and admits it. For context’s sake, he was also the one person I knew who stockpiled the original FourLoko before it was pulled from shelves.

After crawling into bed around 1:30am after a night out one weekend, I found myself cautiously, but very deliberately, logging onto the site. My friends and I had been on earlier in the night but there was something different (and weird, and semi-unacceptable) about going on by yourself. It was almost like being watched Rear Window-style in your own room. Who knew who might appear on the screen!?

I can’t remember how many times I’d hit “next” (and how many penises I’d seen) before I stopped on a normal-looking guy about my age in a grey beanie. I paused. I watched him type.

“Hey,” he wrote. I wrote “hey” back.

We typed like this, back and forth, sitting in our dark rooms, not saying anything out loud but watching each other tap at the keyboard, for almost five hours. I only noticed how long we’d been talking (about what? we were strangers!) when I noticed the sun coming up.

“I should probably go to bed…” I typed, already not wanting this conversation to end. Panic set in. I didn’t know anything about him except that he was from Canada, played soccer at his school and was named “Mike.” If I hit “next” he’d be gone forever. Still, though, he was just a face on a screen. He could be lying about anything. He could be a serial killer! Every possibility ran through my head.

“Listen,” he wrote back, “Here’s my Skype name. I know this is weird and you don’t have to use it, but if you want to talk again, now you have it.”

I logged off and went to sleep. For the next few days I walked around campus and could not get that conversation out of my head. We’d talked about so many things–our families, how we grew up, school, our hopes for the future (how college does this sound…) Plus, there was something so romantic about being strangers. It was mysterious. It was no-risk…kind of. How could I not talk to him again?

I added him on Skype a week after our initial conversation. Of course I did.

Over the next four months our “relationship” grew more and more intense. We Skyped for hours almost every single night. A few weeks in we exchanged phone numbers and would text all day long. It got to the point where he would text me to make sure I’d made it home safely from parties. I’d even think about skipping parties just to talk to him. We’d switch between BBM (how vintage) and WhatsApp based on when he was crossing the Canadian/US border, so as not to miss one second of communication.

I learned everything about him: the names of his family members, who his best friends were, his favorite foods, his serious thoughts about religion, education, politics…and yes, of course, sex. Some of these things I’d never even talked about with my ex-boyfriend.

Unfortunately I learned about another part of his life: his girlfriend.

I can’t remember how long we’d been talking when he finally admitted to her existence. I was livid and threatened to cut him out of my life, which I did for awhile (didn’t last long…). How could he do this to her? How would she feel if she knew about me?

He insisted he wasn’t cheating because, obviously, we were not physically in contact. We’d never even met.

This argument was insanely stupid (of course it wasn’t okay to talk to another girl all day and night), but more importantly, it felt like a kick in the stomach. If he didn’t consider this cheating then who exactly was I to him? I prodded at him for the answer for weeks before he finally admitted that he “admired me” and viewed me as a sort of “mentor.” He was intrigued by my successes in life, my worldly outlook, my education and the fact that I was raised in and attended school in a big city while he felt stuck in a tiny town in Canada. He actually called me a “successful woman” in one of his emails. Barf.

I knew he meant this as a compliment, but honestly, it was a horrible slap in the face. I realized then that I’d developed feelings for him…romantic feelings. I didn’t want to be his ball-busting, CEO of a friend. I didn’t want to be the person he turned to for help with his resume. I wanted to him to view me as able a funny, smart, pretty girl who he could actually “like like.”

At this point my friends were getting worried. It wasn’t like I’d dropped out of life, but remember–this was before Tinder, even. People just were not doing this. I was a sorority girl with lots of friends and plenty of real-life options. Why the hell would I waste my time on someone who lived exclusively on a screen?

Many people still think this way. They watch Catfish and can’t understand how stupid someone can be that they would be roped into an online relationship. Trust me, I was one of those people. Granted, we were video chatting and he wasn’t claiming to be BowWow, but the entire concept is the same: when you’re in an online relationship, it’s just you and that person, “one on one,” for extended periods of time. There are no distractions–no other people, nothing to react to, no looking horrible in the morning or being in a bad mood. You show them your best side, you only see their best side, and you both feel at the center of each other’s worlds. It’s easy to fall down the rabbit hole and completely lose sight of reality, which is that you really don’t know much about the person at all, and everything you do know is confined to a box on your computer screen. I begged Mike to come and visit me. I was desperate to meet him. He put it off for months and months and I honestly started questioning his existence. He could be in some remote village in Africa for all I knew! But then, finally, he decided to visit. He and his friend drove to Chicago from Canada and spent the day hanging out with me and my friend Samantha. I don’t think there are words in the English language to adequately describe how utterly bizarre it is to meet someone in real life who you think you know. Seeing them in person for the first time is like meeting a celebrity–you’ve seen them from afar for so long, and suddenly they’re standing right in front of you. I’m not sure if I actually liked Mike or if I liked the idea of him, but it was damn clear the second we met that he liked my friend Samantha. This was not a scenario I’d prepared for, but I should have: Sam is absolutely stunning. Like, supermodel stunning. And Mike is hot. He looks like an Italian model. Words of the wise: do not bring your mega-hot friend to meet your online crush. (Sorry Sam!) I think we had to meet for me to get it out of my system, because after that, I was able to move on from the idea that we would ever have mega-relationship. I realized that (no surprise here), I loved the drama, mystery and forbiddeness of what we had going on. Having him in my life was like being in a movie–the plot twists were crazy, the emotions were high the fantasy element was absolutely addictive. It’s no coincidence that this online tryst coincided with a very uncertain period in my life–college graduation. I was so unsure of what I was going to do with myself I looked for any escape into Fantasyland to take my mind off reality. That’s not to say Mike was unimportant to me. He absolutely was, and he really did open my mind to people who were different from myself. He was also the first guy I felt like I was really honest with about my feelings. I think that absolutely counts for something. Aside from that, Mike was (and continues to be…we are still Facebook and Snapchat friends!) a genuinely great guy, and I don’t regret the experience I had. It was wild, fun, out of the ordinary and, let’s face it, a great representation of romance in the digital age. Image via We Heart It

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