Lately, the concept of "catfishing" — luring someone into an online relationship by pretending to be someone that you're not — has been surrounded by its fair share of controversy, but how controversial is it in actuality? Believe it or not, a little controlled catfishing is something that plenty of the Instant Message generation has experimented with, even if we're unwilling to admit it. Really, who hasn't tried to escape their reality by pretending to be a 17-year-old varsity baseball player in an N*SYNC chat room every now and then?
This morning's Today Show featured a segment from Dr. Phil McGraw's upcoming interview with Ronaiah Tuiasosopo. Tuiasosopo, for those of you at home, is the 22-year-old man who became a household name after being exposed by Deadspin as the man behind Lennay Kekua, the fake dead girlfriend of Notre Dame football player Manti Te'o. Tuiasosopo, who used photos of a stranger to woo Te'o online, confessed to Dr. Phil that, while Lennay Kekua was a lie, all of "her" (his) feelings were very real.
McGraw tells Today:
Here we have a young man that fell deeply, romantically in love. I asked him straight up, "Was this a romantic relationship with you?" And he says yes. I said, "Are you then therefore gay?" And he said, "When you put it that way, yes." And then he caught himself and said, "I am confused."
The scandal caused by Tuiasosopo, coupled with the MTV series Catfish, has placed the phenomenon of "catfishing" front and center, but it's hardly a new concept. In fact, it's a practice that a lot of millennials have very personal experiences with.
For those of us who were teenagers and preteens during the birth of AOL Instant Messenger, the question "A/S/L?" needs no decoding. Shorthand for "age/sex/location," A/S/L was the first question you'd generally get asked upon entering a chat room and, more often than not, your response would be a lie. "16/M/Florida," you'd respond even if you happened to be a 14-year-old girl from Wisconsin. "15/F/Ontario" you'd say the next time you logged in (this is why so many people have made-up girlfriends in Canada).
Generally, the ruse would last as long as you were in the chat room, but occasionally the identity would be carried elsewhere. You might even have long lasting online relationships with a person, all as a character that you had full control over. There was something about it that made you feel powerful, like you were able to control how people perceived you in a way that you were never able to control your image or reputation in real life. Looking back, I feel fairly safe in assuming that most of my online "friends" were not who they said they were.
Many friends of mine, friends who didn't have a high enough social status to date boys in real life, had their first romantic relationships online. They'd exchanged photos (who's to say if the ones they received were real), talk online everyday after school and make plans to meet in real life (these plans would always fall through). I even knew one girl at summer camp who believed that she was having a full-blown relationship with Nick Carter of the Backstreet Boys ("He hasn't been online for awhile because AJ got mad and broke his keyboard.")
I recently asked a different friend about the online boyfriend that she had in middle school. "Did any part of you know think that it was bullshit?" I asked. She said maybe, but that it really didn't matter. Having this online boyfriend in Detroit or wherever both raised her 14-year-old self esteem and gave her a safe place to experiment with flirting and interacting with the opposite sex without fear of being embarrassed in front of her peers. The same can be said about teenage forays into sex chat rooms. After clicking "Yes, I'm 18" (you weren't), you could experiment with language and concepts that, more than likely, you were much too young and uncomfortable to experiment with in real life, all under the protection of anonymity.
Thinking back on the reasons that my peers created false online identities, Tuiasosopo's actions start to make a lot more sense especially when you consider the fact that he's a homosexual who remains somewhat in the closet. We used fake ages, sexes and locations partially, I think, to experiment with identity — something which, as a young teenager, is in a constant state of uncomfortable flux. While we can't say for sure why Ronaiah Tuiasosopo targeted Manti Te'o and created Lennay Kekua, it stands to reason that it wasn't so much a senseless act of cruelty as much as it was Tuiasosopo's seemingly safe albeit thoughtless way of acting out his feelings for another man without fear of labels and judgement.