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I wasn’t allowed the internet until high school but when I was 11 my friend showed me how to make a Hotmail account. It was 2003, and being 11 I used my email address to leave comments on Linkin Park fan-sites. One week I got an email from someone claiming to be the cousin of Chester Bennington, lead singer of the band. He said he saw one of my comments online and could tell I was smart and he wanted to get to know me. I was thrilled! I told my mum and she thought that was “so neat.” Fast forward three emails and he’s sending me detailed graphic personal massage fantasies, and all the photos he had sent me of Chester came up on the first page of Google. He was a stranger, and I had been catfished.
In 2010 the documentary Catfish was released, and it coined the name of something so many have experienced since the birth of the internet—being tricked online into thinking you are talking to someone you are not. While the validity of the original film is questionable, it’s entertaining and intriguing, and is a full exploration of what catfishes are, and it has spawned an incredible MTV reality series of the same name. Original Catfish-ee Nev Schulman is joined by co-host/cameraman/silver-fox Max Joseph (director of last year’s ill-fated EDM drama We Are Your Friends), and the show is now in its 5th season of crazy batshit drama. As is the nature of catfishing most of the stories do not have happy endings, but the show never outright wills for a negative outcome, and more often than not you get caught up in Nev and Max’s lovelorn optimism.
The most recent episode focuses on 40 year old single grandmother Jeanette—a show first!—whose story had been submitted by her concerned daughter, Shuntay. Jeanette has been talking to 27 year old Derick, a forklift driver from Atlanta who just so happens to look like your average Instagram fuckboy. They’ve been talking every day on the phone for a year and Derick expressed a desire to start a family with Jeanette… but his webcam is constantly broken and they’ve never actually met. Shuntay, a mother herself, enlists Max and Nev to help her mom meet and find happiness with Derick; but the chances seem slim, and even slimmer when a quick reverse Google image search reveals the person in Derick’s photos to be a seventeen year old high school senior. This is revealed to a horrified Jeanette as copies of her text conversations are superimposed over her crying—“I love you baby.” “Went to the mall today and saw the perfect ring ;).” Sickly sweet guitar pop with very literal lyrics about broken dreams plays in the background.
As Jeanette weeps in her garage, it hits you how messed up this whole situation is and makes you wonder why anyone would manipulate a stranger like that. It’s important to note a lot of catfish are the first to contact the show because they think being on the show gives them a second chance to explain themselves, and maybe, just maybe, they can keep the relationship they’ve established. Most are genuinely remorseful, have zero self esteem, and thought that they had to lie to find love. But as Jeanette laments after finally meeting the real Derick (no spoilers), “didn’t I deserve to know [who you were]?” It’s true, real love can conquer all, but there’s no real love in sending a forty year old grandmother pics of a teenager and saying it’s you.