Plus, signs that someone is catfishing you.
A little over a decade ago, the population was introduced to an interesting new take on an old word: "catfish." No, not the ugly, whiskered fish, but a slang version that has become embedded in internet culture thanks to the increase in online dating, social media and messaging platforms. "Catfishing"—the deceptive act of not portraying yourself as who you truly are online—is now an integral part of our lexicon.
If you're new to the term "catfish," take a dip into the pond for a refresher on the word's meaning and the signs. Keep reading for what being "catfished" means—plus, how to tell if someone is catfishing you.
What is catfishing and why do people do it?
According to the official definition from Urban Dictionary, a "catfish" refers to a "fake or stolen online identity created or used for the purposes of beginning a deceptive relationship." However, Wikipedia has a pretty good definition for it too: "Catfishing is a deceptive activity in which a person creates a fictional persona or fake identity on a social networking service, usually targeting a specific victim. The practice may be used for financial gain, to compromise a victim in some way, as a way to intentionally upset a victim, or for wish fulfillment."
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While some motivations to catfish can be relatively harmless, others can be emotionally and/or financially damaging and result in painful, if not dangerous, consequences.
So, why do people do it? That's a tricky question as a catfish's motivation is usually personal to their individual circumstances. People catfish for all kinds of reasons. Catfishing—assuming the identity of another person, often one that is perceived as conventionally attractive—can be an escape for people who are struggling with confidence, going through a difficult time, coming to terms with who they are, or myriad other reasons.
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In many episodes of the MTV series (based on the 2010 documentary of the same name, but more on that later) several catfish claimed to take on an alternative persona as a way to cope with their sexuality or gender identity. Others have mentioned their motivation as getting back at an ex, trying to win a lover back or catching a partner cheating.
Then, there are the scenarios in which a catfish will repeatedly ask for money. Are your alarm bells going off? Yeah—we recommend never wiring money to anyone you don't know in the flesh.
What does catfishing someone mean?
Catfishing, as a verb, means to deceptively portray yourself to someone else online. This can be romantic or platonic in nature as well as nefarious too, like wanting to physically hurt someone or depleting a person financially. You never know who's actually behind the profile pic, so it's crucial to practice safety online.
In summary, catfishing is basically the act of deceiving another person online by being dishonest about who you are. This deception ranges from a fake name or using someone else's photos to even asking someone for money under false pretenses.
Why is it called catfishing?
Using the internet in a questionable or even nefarious fashion has been happening since it was invented. But the term "catfish" didn't enter the (slang) English language until 2010 a la the documentary Catfish. Still, it took a while for the term to catch on. In fact, when college football star Manti Te'o was famously catfished in 2012, the word for it wasn't even really known; it was just called "a hoax."
You can thank a man named Vince Pierce for the word "catfish." Catfish culminates in Nev Shulman—the documentary's main subject—finally finding out who's behind the social persona, Angela, who he had been digitally dating. Spoiler alert, but Shulman discovers the person he's been chatting and sexting with is a married woman in her 40s who's also behind several fake accounts purporting to be Angela's family members.
These accounts were created to make Angela appear more real—however, it was one woman behind it all.
She had also been sending him artwork under the pretense that her little sister was painting them. However, it was "Angela" all along.
So, who's Vince Pierce? Well, he's the husband of the world's first official, documented catfish—AKA "Angela"— and when the bizarre meeting of strangers—one of whom lied to the other—is over, Pierce uses a metaphor to explain his wife's deceptive actions.
Pierce tells the camera:
They used to tank cod from Alaska all the way to China. They’d keep them in vats in the ship. By the time the codfish reached China, the flesh was mush and tasteless. So this guy came up with the idea that if you put these cods in these big vats, put some catfish in with them and the catfish will keep the cod agile. And there are those people who are catfish in life. And they keep you on your toes. They keep you guessing, they keep you thinking, they keep you fresh. And I thank god for the catfish because we would be droll, boring, and dull if we didn’t have somebody nipping at our fin.
What are signs of catfishing?
Over the years, as people become savvier online, many of the signs of catfishing have become more obvious. The quintessential "excuses" for not seeing someone face-to-face used to be a broken webcam or lack of other social media accounts.
Platforms like Facebook, Twitter or chat rooms were ripe for catfishing. But with the increased popularity in picture-sharing—thanks to apps like Instagram, Snapchat and TikTok—catfishing is harder to pull off. Apps like Snapchat and BeReal take and post photos in real-time, which means a catfish really can't upload a fake photo saved from another source.
Video calling and FaceTiming are more popular than ever too, which also makes a catfishing ruse more suspicious. You can only refuse to vid-chat for so long before it becomes suspicious, you know?
10 telltale signs you're being catfished:
The person won't video chat with you or when you have videochatted, it's dark or difficult to see them.
There is always an excuse to avoid meeting up vis-à-vis or little effort is made on their part to plan an in-person meeting.
There is a limited number of photos of them available.
Their pictures show up in a reverse Google Image search, connected to someone else's account.
The person won't send you a real-time selfie or proof they're "real" such as holding up a handwritten sign that says something specific.
The person won't meet in person but asks you for money. (BIG RED FLAG HERE!)
The person doesn't seem to have an extensive online network of other friends or family members.
The person seems to lie a lot and their stories contradict one another.
They claim to be a model.
The person disappears suddenly or one of the person's family members or friends alerts you that they have "died."
Famous examples of catfishing
Most notably, the aforementioned Notre Dame linebacker Manti Te'o was publicly catfished from 2009 to 2012. After he found out his online girlfriend, Lennay Kekua—who he had never met in person—died suddenly in 2012, Te'o famously dedicated a championship football game to her.
Te'o told the story in several interviews and it spread like inspirational wildfire. But it wasn't long until the narrative unraveled. Suddenly, Kekua claimed to be alive again, which ultimately alerted Te'o that something was deeply amiss.
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Remember: at this time, "catfishing" wasn't really a well-known term. The documentary had been released, but it wasn't until MTV premiered a reality TV series of the same name in November 2012 that people more widely understood the term.
Te'o's situation was largely referred to as a "hoax" as the truth came to light that it was a male, Ronaiah Tuiasosopo, behind the profile (now Naya Tuiasosopo, a transgender woman).
Te'o was publicly shamed and his professional football career may have even suffered as a result.
As the MTV show became more popular, "catfish" became a more mainstream term and knowledge of what catfishing actually is became more widespread. Now, it is accepted as the official word for someone who is deceiving someone else online.