When I was eight years old, I didn’t have a lot of friends. What I did have, however, was an Internet connection. The year was 2000 and the Internet was still something relatively new to most people, and as it were, children like myself, who couldn’t make eye contact at school but could type 180 WPM. The Internet was my bread and butter.
At school, I was the woefully Aspergian weirdo that few if any kids liked, overwhelming my peers with television trivia they didn’t care to hear and derailing lesson plans with digressive questions my teachers were sick of me asking.
But at home, I retreated to the Internet where I was no longer the overweight 3rd grader who had on more than one occasion had birthday party invitations returned to her. I was Tom, the charming 17-year-old boy who had successfully wooed a teen mom from Arizona he’d met on Yahoo!Games.
Our “relationship” lasted about six months, until she wanted to have cyber sex. I didn’t totally understand what sex was at that point, so I quickly aborted the mission and found someone new.
This became a fairly reliable social outlet for me. I definitely wasn’t getting the validation I longed for in real life and it was easy enough to find it online. This is the standard excuse for people who “catfish,” or lie about their identity over the Internet. It provides an escape. You construct the narrative you wish you were living and your current reality becomes more bearable. Frequently, this is what I did; my personas were versions of myself unencumbered by schoolyard bullies and social anxiety.
Clearly, I’m a master of disguise.
As I grew older though, I became less interested in merely withdrawing into a fantasy world. By the time I was 12, I saw it as a creative exercise. It’s easier to pretend you’re more popular or more accomplished when there’s a willing audience, but that isn’t always the most interesting option. The personalities became increasingly less likeable.
In 2005, I created Dieter, a white supremacist who was what can only be described as a “reverse feeder” -- that is, someone with an eating disorder fetish. A regular on the Neopets forums at the time, Dieter was my answer to Nadia*, who was one of the site’s most infamous trolls.
At first, I just wanted to one-up her pot stirring. He was an amalgam of everything I could think of that upset people. I mean, what’s more repulsive than a neo-Nazi on a children’s website who encourages girls to starve themselves for his sexual pleasure? And, of course, I was right. I must have been banned (or “iced” as they say on Neopets) upwards of 10 times. With my trademark all caps and bold, red 12-point Arial, I upset a lot of people.
But not Nadia. No, Nadia was intrigued. She reached out to me and we -- or rather, she and Dieter -- became friends. Frankly, I was in shock that I had managed to capture someone’s attention in any sustained, meaningful way by posting “SIEG HEIL” relentlessly, but you never can predict what’ll reel people in. If I recall correctly, she was 16 or 17 at the time. I was 13. Even trying my best to create the most repulsive character (and he was just that, a caricature) I could, Nadia was attracted to him. She grew attached.
It was 2005, so not having a webcam was believable enough, but Nadia was eager for more than just text and the few pictures I had already sent her. (Thanks, JDate!) I wracked my brain for an answer. A phone call would definitely be out of the question. I didn’t know any boys who could be a stand in-for me, one, and two, even if I did, how would I even ask them to do this?
“Hey, I met some girl on Neopets and she kind of fell in love with this alter ego I created, uh, would you mind posing as him?”
I did the next best thing. I wrote a script, gave it to a male family member, claimed it was for a flash animation and had him read it. Then I sent it.
She bought it.
Every now and then, I would have that same family member read from a new script. He must have really not given a shit because he never asked to see all these flash animations I was supposedly hard at work on.
After about 8 months, I got bored. There was nothing shocking about Dieter anymore. His storyline wasn’t going anywhere. Gone were my glory days on Neopets. It was a lot of talking to Nadia about her teen angst, and not a lot of character development. I moved on.
Every few months, a new identity was born:
Victor, in part fashioned after Donny Osmond. Sugar sweet, stage mom who coerced him and his sister into a singing career, from a large family, Mormon. Of course, Victor’s singing career didn’t take off. But he was woefully jealous of his younger sister, Dakota, who at five was really making it on the pageant circuit. He’d been pushed so hard and for so many years, only to fail and watch his sibling succeed.
Then there was Soren, a schizophrenic and self-proclaimed “philosopher” who would time-to-time launch into Time Cube-style rants about how God had come to him and shown him the One True Religion. In the same vein as Soren, Xander, an alien/Illuminati-obsessed hoarder whose one goal in life was to track down his estranged mother (all he knew about her was that she at one point had been a stripper in New Mexico).
I had folders with information about each person, passwords to accounts I had made about them, lists of things I had told people, I archived most conversations for reference purposes. I wouldn’t want to get any storylines crossed, after all.
My last venture into catfishing was Michel Benoit, a French medical student struggling with an Adderall addiction. He ended up becoming the object of affection for a certain MIT PhD and professor at an elite engineering school.
My experiences felt more like interactive story telling than strictly “catfishing.” I was pushing the envelope, seeing how far people would go for companionship, even if only over the Internet. It almost felt like a game of finding what the deal breaker was for people.
I like to consider what I did challenging character studies. I was researching walks of life I hadn’t otherwise been exposed to. In fact, I can say with confidence that most of my education has come from the research involved in building these personas. I even, and with some success, tried to teach myself Noxchiin Mott to make a Chechen character I had created seem more real.
Here I am fancying myself a fiction writer -- maybe I’m just a pathological liar.
I should be a spy, right?
It was Michel, who I later fleshed out and wrote something like 400 pages about, who inspired me to retire. Michel was the impetus for a producer to give me her best pitch as to why I should agree to be on MTV’s "Catfish." After that, enough was enough. As much as I loved this, it was a lot more productive to forgo the interpersonal experiment and just write.