January 24th, 2013

Digital Relationships, Manti Te’o and the Great Catfish Caper

Manti Te'o

Notre Dame football player Manti Te’o. Photo credit to Anthony Nesmith/Cal Sport Media/ZUMAPRESS.com.

As an “Under-30” I have to say that technology has evolved at a faster pace than I ever thought would be possible. I remember beige computers with black screens and green type that could only access a few keyboarding programs, play what are now antiquated games compared to the Xbox Live and World of Warcraft things, and complete homework and school assignments. The first online chat program I ever remember using for extended periods of time was AOL Instant Messenger (AIM) which is like a caveman’s apparatus compared to the plethora of Skype and G-video chats that have emerged.  As part of the generation that grew up as the Internet grew exponentially, online dating and internet love is not something that is altogether new. However as with most things technology-centered , the birth and aging of a new generation who have come into these pre-existing media have evolved the codified rules of dating. Enter Catfish.

Nev Schulman was a regular guy who, like many before him, met a girl on the Internet. His two friends filmed the entire thing, and it turned out Nev’s love wasn’t even real. After critical acclaim, film festival lore and some press, the resulting film called Catfish eventually became a show on MTV, chronicling the life and times of under-30s across America meeting their Internet “loves” for the first time, face to face. Before last week, Catfish operated in a reality television vacuum of a show that spoke directly to and about the internet generation on a network that does the same. Enter Deadspin and Manti Te’o.

In some ironically old school investigative journalism, the story broke last week by Deadspin that the thought-to-be-deceased former girlfriend of the popular Notre Dame Heisman Trophy candidate was a fraud. Having read the story there was no stone left unturned in what has become 2013’s Great Catfish Caper. I learned about the article through Twitter on January 16 and after that the media storm picked up. CNN, ABC and others are now amongst the media storm cloud that is Manti Te’o’s own Catfish gone awry.

As the two popular cultures of football and media converge and paint a picture of today’s times – what message is technology whispering to us beneath these surfaces? Catfish exposes so many individuals and their yearning for attention-seeking that have resulted in common sense, reality, and actual interpersonal relations all but disappearing for a statistically significant amount of people (since the show has enough stories to have multiple new episodes weekly). To carry on an online relationship with anyone without ever confirming their appearance via Skype, web chat, or video chat seems absurd. To carry on relations, make plans, fall in love over the span of months and years without ever laying eyes on a person or even speaking to them on the phone for extended lengths of time represents some wanton abandon to the natural curiosity that we all should have about those who pique our romantic and/or intellectual interests. For an acclaimed college athlete to also be a victim seems apocryphal at best, and hilarious at its worst.

My disposition after reading multiple news sources about the Catfish Caper and also watching several episodes of Catfish is that the fundamental truth of honesty being the best policy has been cast overboard – and it is being rewarded at the same time! What about the social credit that we owe each other as human beings who should at least present an honest (or ideally honest, to be fair) representation of being who we claim to be? When this many people create fake profiles with fake photos and seal off an entire method of communication with another person, what can be done? When those on the receiving end of the lies choose to live in a blissfully ignorant space, without questioning or seeking more from people they claim to love, what does that say about the level of respect we have for ourselves in the digital age?

With a Heisman Trophy contender a part of this mix, sports sensationalism has now entered into the fraudulent romance conversation serendipitously. As Te’o’s story of insurmountable odds on top of the death of his grandmother and his love surfaced, and the Heisman Trophy loomed nearer, the media frenzy spun out of control. The sensationalism of sports found itself on a stage that now elevates doubts about why Te’o and this Catfish Caper are even relevant before he’s even signed an NFL contract. But the convergence of all these worlds demonstrates yet another problem with technology and how its evolution and use over time can manifest itself negatively, and changes the basis of our social relations.

Anne Desrosiers is the founder and Executive Director of The World is Your Oyster, nonprofit consultant and former Americorps Volunteer in Service to America. As an avid media consumer, Anne enjoys engaging in the critique and debate of improving what we see, hear and eventually become as a result of media and its influence on our lives.

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