If you think a catfish is a river-dwelling bottom feeder that has felinelike whiskers, chances are you're not very active on social media. That also means you've probably never heard of Nev Schulman, who is credited with turning the word into a social media term through his movie Catfish, or his new book, In Real Life.
UrbanDictionary.com defines a catfish as a person who "pretends to be someone they're not, using Facebook or other social media to create false identities, particularly to pursue deceptive online romances." Spoiler alert: This is what happened to then-22-year-old Schulman in 2007. The unwary victim of a middle-aged female catfish, he, his brother and a friend turned the story into a documentary that went over big at the Sundance Film Festival.
So great was the film's success that in 2012 Schulman and another friend started Catfish: The TV Show on MTV to explore other people's catfish stories. Lest anyone consider catfishing a small phenomenon, Schulman writes that "Facebook admits that a mind-boggling 83 million Facebook profiles — 8.7 percent of all profiles — are fakes or dupes."
Yet In Real Life is far more than a book about catfishing; it gives advice to anyone who devotes significant time and energy to social media, especially advice on how to better navigate the Internet and manage our digital identities.
Schulman notes that many people use social media to lie about themselves, in small and large ways, and to criticize others recklessly, all of which can lead to becoming a catfish. He has deactivated his Facebook account and advocates cutting down on the use of smartphones and laptops so that people can spend more time talking to one another face to face.
At times the book can seem repetitive and carping, and one might question the wisdom of a writer who admits to such controversial acts as striking a woman he mistook for a man (for which he was expelled from college). But it can be argued that Schulman's flaws allow him to drive home the message that people can recover from their mistakes, especially those related to social media.
This is what Schulman does best: appealing to those, primarily millennials, who probably wouldn't listen to his message from anyone else. He has seen firsthand how broken and desperate unmasked catfish are, and he believes that their insecurities reveal something deeper about our society. He offers positive, if not totally original, steps people can take to make their offline lives more meaningful than their online ones. He has thus made a valuable contribution to our ongoing conversation about the dangers of social media.