It’s been roughly five years since the word “catfish” went from being a seafood entree to a widely accepted term for faking an identity on the Internet. That’s thanks to the ticking legacy of Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman’s 2010 documentary Catfish and its subsequent series on MTV, which debuted in late 2012.
When the hour-long TV adaptation launched, the conceit was surprisingly sustainable: Two guys (host Nev Schulman and his trusty pal Max Joseph) travel the country to arrange first-time meetings between people in long-term online relationships, proving 9 times out of 10 that at least one cyber lover is not who he says he is. As a weekly installment, Catfish: The TV Show proved to be more than a reality shock generator; it was a curious study in online behavior, a time capsule of digital communication that bubbled with zeitgeisty relevance in its first few seasons.
That’s not to say that Catfish has waned. But, as with any good pop culture reality show, skepticism is rampant by now (Catfish premiered its fourth season on MTV on Feb. 25)—and it’s easy to wonder whether season four maintains the novelty and truth of the series’ first three outings. Pessimists wonder whether the show can still find authentic catfishes and catfishees in a sea of schemers who just want to be on TV; even optimists wonder there’s any excuse to be catfished anymore. Have we reached peak Catfish?
“I think the cases of people not necessarily ‘catfishing,’ but exaggerating and fudging the truth in their online relationship, is increasing,” says Catfish host and revolutionary Schulman. “More and more people are now online, and the insecurities of youth—and not just youth, but adulthood—are there as much as they ever have been. Now there’s just this great medium to bend the truth, and people are more and more inclined to do that in an effort to find whatever it is they’re looking for.”
Is it love? Maybe, or maybe not. The mass of emails Schulman receives chronicle relationships that span from casual flings to zealous soulmates. For every pair that does make the show, there are hundreds who don’t—and the difference in whether they get on the air now is based on severity and precedence. Schulman says the show tries to only focus on extreme cases, which have become less frequent over the years.
“It has become harder just because we’re always looking to not tell the same story twice,” says Schulman, who purposely stays out of the casting process to keep his experience authentic. “The hardest part for me is, at the beginning of every episode, part of me just wants to get on the phone with these hopefuls and say, ‘Cut it off. If this person hasn’t video chatted with you, they obviously aren’t into you enough, or they’re lying to you.’ But the other part of me says, ‘This is a meaningful connection. They care about each other. There’s something here.’ I don’t want to assume the worst because then you go through life not giving anything a chance.”
Building a career by cracking cyber romances has made Schulman acutely aware when he feels cynicism set in. “I have to assume, unfortunately, that there’s a strange, unusual something happening,” he says. “Even though I cross my fingers that it’s always just some crazy circumstance, and two people are being totally honest and it’s true love and they’re going to run off on horses into the sunset, there’s a good chance that if they need my help, that’s not going to happen.”
It’s tough to balance optimism with pragmatism; Schulman knows he has to play both fields. He encourages a happy ending while surreptitiously preparing potential Catfishees for heartbreak. “I told you so” can’t be in his vocabulary.
Over time, Schulman has tried to alter his role by inserting himself into the story as little as possible—which sounds counterintuitive to the nature of his job as a relationship-dissecting stranger with a camera. “To some extent, I’m always pushing and saying, how can we do things better? Is there a way that we can be less involved in the story ourselves so the story can happen more organically?” he says, adding that season 4 has made significant strides in improving the show’s process. “It’s just impossible to capture the absolute reality of a situation if you’re there because you’re changing their reality.”
Catfish is halfway through filming its 20-episode season (in which celebrities temporarily replace Max, who’s busy making his feature film directing debut), but production is still searching for the right cases to round out the season run. Which brings us back to the question at hand: After four seasons, are people wising up to deceptive Internet suitors?
“It’s rare that you find someone who doesn’t have a smartphone now, and that means there are less and less excuses for people to say, ‘Oh, I can’t send you a video,’ so in a way that helps us suss out some of these people,” says Schulman. “But amazingly, that doesn’t prevent people from buying into whatever it is they want to buy into. Because if you want to be in love with someone, you’ll believe whatever they say. It doesn’t even make a difference.”
Schulman cites the futuristic anthology series Black Mirror as a glimpse into our relationship with technology. He predicts that in ten years, verification on digital devices will be inevitable. But that validation also comes with a downside: “Is that good for society, that people can’t be anonymous and can’t express themselves in ways they want to?” Schulman wonders. “The beauty of the Internet now is that anybody can come up with a personality for themselves, and that’s great. And I don’t want to lose that.”
Catfish airs Wednesdays at 10 p.m. on MTV.