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Catfishing in America
January 24, 2013 - Rick Chatenever
It's called Catfishing.
The word sounds like something out of Mark Twain, or a song by Taj Mahal, or perhaps a footnote to Richard Brautigan's almost classic "Trout Fishing in America."
But its newest definition has nothing to do with fish.
It's one of those additions to the vocabulary that you have to Google to understand. ("Googling" is another newcomer to the language that's become something we can't live without.) According to Urban Dictionary, "Catfishing" refers to creating a fantasy online identity so vivid and seductive that a complete stranger can fall in love with it. Catfishing has already spawned a new reality-TV show on MTV.
Catfishing came to the attention of the mainstream media last week in connection to Manti Te'o, the Punahou grad and Notre Dame football linebacker whose run for the Heisman Trophy was accompanied by the story of the tragic death of his girlfriend, and his leadership of his team to the BCS national championship game, inspired by her memory.
It was a great story. It would have been even greater if it had been true.
Apparently, the young woman didn't exist. Whether or not the gifted athlete was the victim or the perpetrator of the hoax was still being sorted out a few days ago when I wrote this column.
Whatever the verdict, it adds a new dimension to the old song, "Lookin' for Love in all the Wrong Places."
News about the hoax inadvertently coincided with an announcement by Facebook launching its newest service, Graph Search. Watching the official Facebook video explaining how Graph Search works, I learn it is a good way of finding Friends
who work at your company who share your love of skiing. Or road trips. Or any number of things from an infinite list of "Likes."
Or maybe they're friends of Friends who might become your Friend, too.
Coincidentally, its logo includes a photo of a kid with a fishing pole.
Facebook has been on my mind lately, in a historic way. Having been part of it for a few years now, I'm taking stock. Despite my initial misgivings about it being a perfect symbiotic host for narcissism, voyeurism, jealousy and loneliness - and despite "The Social Network's" claim that it was invented by someone who didn't have any friends so he had to create about a billion of them - these days Facebook is feeling like a net plus.
True, there are scores - hundreds, actually - of my so-called Friends I don't actually, uh, know.
But if you choose wisely, your personal social network can span time zones and continents, putting you in regular touch with lots of people you actually like, whom you wouldn't reach out to otherwise.
And if your Friends are as creative, caring, wise and hilarious as many of mine, it's a fun party to drop into every so often.
Since I transitioned from being a newspaper editor to a part-time English instructor at UH-Maui College, I've noticed my focus shifting from the latest movie buzz to broader sociological patterns and shifts in how we communicate.
Watching "Broken City," for example - the disappointing new potboiler about corrupt NYC mayoral politics starring Mark Wahlberg, Russell Crowe and Catherine Zeta-Jones - I learned that in the age of smart phones, everyone is potentially wearing a wire. Ironically, that movie is also about manufacturing a romantic hoax to lure a sucker.
For anyone who has seen a real catfish - on a fishing line or even on a plate - this shift of meanings takes some getting used to. The replacement of the natural world by something that looks a lot like it, except you watch it on a screen, is challenging.
More disturbing is our eagerness to go for the bait, sincerely giving our hearts to something that never existed in the first place.
* Contact Rick Chatenever at email@example.com.
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