The strange and sometimes terrifying world of catfishing has always fascinated Cassie Delaney, and she made assumptions about the type of people who do it. That is, until she spoke to John.
Humanist psychologist Carl Rogers theorised that we are composed of two versions of self; The Ideal Self and The Real Self.[restrict]
The Ideal Self is the accomplished version of yourself, derived from what you have learned from your life experiences, the demands of society and what you admire in others. For example, if your parents are barristers and well liked in the community, experience dictates that in order to be happy you need to be intelligent with a high-paying job.
Your ideal self might be someone studious who understands and absorbs information easily, is affable and disciplined. Your Real Self is who you actually are. The theory goes that unhappiness lies in the space between who you really are and who you want to be. The greater the disparity, the greater the dissatisfaction.
The fastest way to happy, therefore, is to realise the most perfect version of yourself. To simply step into the shoes of your brightest, most successful, most loved, most confident self. The desire to bridge the gap between who we are and who we want to be is the thing that drives us to change, to sign up to gyms, to study, to improve.
Most of us can see a clear road from A to B and know that hard work is the vehicle. But what happens when the path is muddy?
What happens when the disparity between the real and the ideal seems like an unconquerable abyss?
I began investigating catfishing believing I would find morally questionable characters who used the anonymity of the internet as a means to deceive vulnerable people. I thought I would find people who were simply looking for a shortcut from A to B. I co-host a podcast called The Creep Dive in which we relay stories from the dregs of the internet. Week after week we talk about con artists and their scams, and my area of intrigue is catfishers.
On the internet, a catfish refers to someone who creates a fictional persona with the intention of luring another into an online relationship. The term in that context entered the Oxford English Dictionary in 2014 but was popularised four years earlier following a documentary of the same name and a subsequent MTV docuseries. I have watched almost every episode.
I am obsessed with understanding the motivations of people who lie online, who often convince their subjects that they are in love, the ones that fake their deaths, the people that build false worlds around them full of fake characters, fake back stories and (so often) fake babies.
In many of the stories we have covered on The Creep Dive, there has been a financial impetus – the catfisher has either successfully extracted money from their online lover or in the case of Australian Belle Gibson, financially benefitted from their lies and falsified personal experiences. But not all catfishers are created equally, as I learned when I began correspondence with John*.
I’ll stipulate here that I of course appreciate the irony in discussing catfishing with an interviewee who wishes to remain anonymous. As someone who operates online with a healthy dose of scepticism however I have validated John’s story.
John’s online life began in the days pre-Facebook and pre-Instagram and the majority of his expression happened on a website called Open Diary. John was introduced to the website by a friend, an American girl who was dating a friend of John’s girlfriend. John is trans, and when he joined the site aged 18, he wasn’t out.
He explains: “I got an account on there to stay in touch with [the American friend] and ended up opening a second one that was just going to be for me to write sad poems and vent about the injustice of life. The usual!
“From the outset I took on a persona that I was male, sort of thinking this was the only way I’d ever be able to actually be myself. But I never planned to actually make any friends on there or anything. It was just going to be my own escape. I’d never tell anyone about it or anything.”
A NEW LIFE
One of the features of Open Diary was that other people could browse and read journal entries from other users. Through this discover feature, John connected with two girls from Northern Ireland. Finding himself suddenly in a world where he could be anyone, John created a new life.
“I honestly don’t know why, but I just made up a new life story for myself. Instead of just saying ‘here’s my life’ but substituting female for male, I started saying I was all the things I wanted to be but wasn’t.
“I was a tall, handsome guy with a difficult past, sure, but doing good things. All of the horrible people in my life were basically the people I really was having trouble with, but given new names.
“I ended up really connecting with these two girls, but I think it was mostly just that it was so nice to have this escape. And they started to feel, to me, like my real friends.”
Critics of online friendships and online relationships might easily dismiss connections built virtually as simply not real. How can you trust someone you’ve never met IRL? Well, modern psychology proves online relationships not only provoke real emotions, but may also facilitate relationships in which the conversation is deeper and more meaningful than offline. In 2002, the The Journal of Social Issues published a study by John Bargh, Grainne Fitzsimons and Katelyn McKenna entitled Can You See the Real Me? Activation and Expression of the “True Self” on the Internet.
In three laboratory experiments, the authors tested self‐expression in internet relationship formation and confirmed that people randomly assigned to interact over the Internet (versus face to face) were better able to express their ‘true self’ qualities to their partners.
John Suler, professor of psychology at Rider University says the absence of rules on the internet has created the “online disinhibition effect.” Suler describes two main categories of behaviour that fall under the online disinhibition effect. These two categories are benign disinhibition and toxic disinhibition. Benign disinhibition describes behaviour in which people might self-disclose more on the internet than they would in real life, or go out of their way to help someone or show kindness.
Toxic disinhibition describes behaviour that includes rude language, threats, and visiting places of pornography, crime, and violence on the internet – places the person might not go to in real life. In his work Suler describes six factors that contribute to online disinhibition. One of these factors is invisibility.
“Many types of communication over the internet happen through text. The internet offers a kind of shield and keeps you from being physically visible. Your inhibitions are lowered because you don’t have to worry about tone and body language when you and another person are communicating. Invisibility also lets you misrepresent yourself,” writes Suler.
In the absence of physical evidence, the relationship relies solely on the information one person tells another.
HOW IT STARTS
As John continued his Open Diary account, his real life relationship broke up. It was as he describes, a toxic relationship and when it ended he increasingly turned to the internet for solace. “Some months after that, another person randomly found my account. She was a lovely American girl who made a nice comment about some of my writing. I went over to her account and responded about liking hers. And we sort of became friends.
“I’ll be honest, I absolutely fell head over heels for her. She’d had her own challenges in life and was in her first year of college. She was smart, talented, interesting, capable, kind and absolutely stunning. She was exactly my type and we got along incredibly well. We both had the same interests, the same proclivities, everything.”
The two grew close and started online dating. Virtually they met each other’s friends and for John, though he felt the anxiety of concealing his true identity, he felt genuine happiness. He says that sense of happiness was mutual.
“We all had a place and a purpose in this made up world, so we all felt happy and fulfilled.”
After a year of online dating, John knew he had to come clean. “I got her on voice chat one day and just told her the truth,” he says.
“I was falling apart, crying so hard I could barely breathe. I told her that I was sorry and that I knew I had wrecked her life. She was heartbroken in a way so deep I can’t even express it. But she remained strong and convinced me to get help. We ended the chat when my dad came home and found me a weeping mess on the floor.”
John came out to his father, began seeing a counsellor and commenced his transition. But just as the happiness had been real, so too was her heartbreak. “Her life was just falling apart. There were days she could barely walk between classes at college because she was so heartbroken and humiliated she would feel like she could barely breathe,” he admits.
John wanted of course to continue their relationship but his ex-girlfriend created clear boundaries. She continued to support John through his transition and talked frequently, but eliminated expectation of a romantic relationship. Months later, John’s ex was awarded a scholarship to study near him and the two finally met in real life.
In person, with real-life rules, the two eventually started dating. They have been married for 13 years and have a toddler who John describes as amazing.
John says on reflection that his actions were fuelled from a deep unhappiness. When I asked whether he believed catfishers are simply seeking connection he said “I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about it all, and I’d classify internet catfishers in the following ways:
Outright scammers. They go into it with a set goal. Getting your money or somehow using and humiliating you.
General shitty people. They go into it knowing they want to find and manipulate someone to fulfil their own needs, with no intention of ever coming clean or sorting out their own issues.
Messed up people. Basically kind and decent people who are screwed up and miserable in their own lives. They aren’t intentionally looking to form real connections, but stumble into it and then struggle with the need to continue something that is helping them cope or be honest and lose it all.”
Regardless of intention and outcome, John still regrets his actions.
“Even when you think you’re doing it in a gentle and innocent way, you are manipulating other people’s emotions and lives to feed your own needs.” He knows his story is different from that of the majority. “I was so, so, so incredibly lucky that she was such an amazing and strong and kind person, and that she made me help myself.” It’s undeniable that for some, the internet is a lawless playground where rules are redundant, social norms are suspended and the possibilities are endless.
When being successful, beautiful and confident is as easy as simply saying so, many choose to craft impressive lives and seduce unsuspecting subjects. For most, the internet is a place to test the boundaries. It’s a space to exercise imagination. It’s an avenue to explore an alternative being. It’s a vacuum of falsities.
But for some like John it’s the opposite. It’s a safe space. It’s an accepting world. It’s a community. It’s the only place to be fully real.