Though internet dating comes with self-flattery to ‘catfishing’, relationships can still be found in the most unlikely ways. By Amy Gray.

Internet dating and catfishing

Catfish Cabin in Jackson, Tennessee.
Catfish Cabin in Jackson, Tennessee.
Credit: Beverly McCullough

Online dating is popular because it promises two things: that you can find someone to love, if only temporarily, and that you can find them quickly. Everything else that follows shows the modern approach to intimacy and identity.

I recently reopened an old account on dating site OkCupid in preparation for a panel on feminism and dating. My account is usually dormant, not because I dislike online dating but because, as the largest dating site around, OkCupid is also a weathervane for all that is wrong with them. It’s a land where social and sexual frustrations collide, often hilariously but occasionally with a charm illustrated best as a seven-car pile-up.

On OkCupid a gaggle of the same personality types are spread among a million different identities all trying to score a date. For every guy posing with a drugged tiger while demanding “no game players”, there are sweethearts who mumble their search for someone ready to laugh and relax. Yet the site feels like a choreographed chore, with bland conversations and dead ends, and I normally end up disabling my account after five hours, wondering if there is something alien about my inability to find someone like-minded.

But this time amid the humdrum huddle one guy stood out. Something about him was both clumsy and clever, a mix of alpha hook-up and affection, though perhaps teetering on the edge of cheese as most dating profiles do. I hit “like” to show my interest and he returned the favour within a few hours, along with a message.

We traded about 10 messages or so where he divulged his name – let’s call him James – and that he lived in a low-slung terrace in Fitzroy. He was playfully direct and indicated he wanted to meet, and he was interested in where I was and what I did. I blushed under his attention and warm approach. James seemed full of potential, with teasing jokes and sharp observations, even though his messages could veer from angelic to awkward.

But there were questions about him that he refused to answer. He wouldn’t say what he did for work, sharing nothing bar his name and suburb, not even the standard offering of a phone number or messaging service. Across a 24-hour period a pattern emerged of messages sent during specific hours with long stretches of silence in between.

While it’s natural for people to share information slowly, it felt like James was sharing nothing about himself at all except his attraction, all the while wanting to know my whereabouts and activities. My excitement deflated, leaving my skin prickling uncomfortably. The process now seemed less like trying to learn about someone and more like James’s identity was under doubt. I needed to find out more before I spoke with him again.

Who was the real James? The leap to searching him online was confusing, as I tried to work out if I was defending myself or invading his privacy.

A search of Facebook provided no trace and nor did Google. This led me to two possible conclusions: that he was smart enough to hide his entire existence from two of the most exhaustive directories of identity the web has ever seen… or that he wasn’t who he claimed. The only proof I had that he existed were his photos. Names and details can be faked, but I knew what he looked like. Determined to find out something about him, I reverse image-searched his photos to see where else they had appeared on the internet.

That’s how I discovered that the warm, kind face was not of the mysterious James but actually a filmmaker in North America we’ll call Carlin. Carlin had a Facebook account and an entry on Wikipedia, and returned a raft of Google results. He was not living in Fitzroy.

I was being “catfished” – presented with a fake identity to lure interest, a trick named for the supposed restaurant practice of passing off cheap fish as something more appetising.

With scornful speed, I messaged James to let him know he was nowhere near as smart as he thought he was and shouldn’t underestimate women. There was no reply.

The story should end there – a predictable tale about how no one on the internet is who they seem. A beige horror story to tell at night (“and then she realised the booty call was coming from inside the house…”). Yet, I still had questions. Did Carlin know someone was stealing his image? Should I tell him?

I quickly tracked Carlin down via email and told him about James’s fake OkCupid profile, then asked if he wanted to chat. Ten minutes later we were Skyping across thousands of kilometres and awkwardly avoiding each other’s gaze. We viewed each other briefly, to confirm our faces matched our online identities, and after that switched off our webcams so we could confine ourselves to voices. We laughed as we went through James’s profile, with Carlin critiquing and pointing out how it was unlike his real profile on OkCupid. Yet instead of being angry, Carlin was unfazed that his photos were stolen.

“People are so unbelievably paranoid and protective about who they are,” he said. “They’re delicate and sensitive about it. I’m not recognised enough for this to bother or impact me.”

He had sympathy for James, wondering if talking to women remotely was easier for him or perhaps protected him from being deceitful to those close to him in some way, rationalising that his lies were a preventive measure against actual infidelity.

“You know, so what if this lonely man uses my image?” Carlin said. “If he uses my images and then murders someone, then that’s problematic. But the probability of someone using my image and then meeting a woman or hurting them or doing terrible things to them is incredibly low. Of course I would be upset, but I purposely post my stuff knowing people will have access to it.”

Carlin suggested there is a hypocrisy about how we regard images, when in conversation we often permit some stretching of the truth or the borrowing of other’s exploits. “If we share a person’s story as our own, it’s generally accepted and not that big of a deal. It’s when it’s visual that people go nuts.” In this light, he said he didn’t mind his image becoming a “casualty” because he knew that the “truth will come out eventually”. We agreed James was naive to think he wouldn’t get caught when people twigged to the shallow identity he had cobbled together.

Carlin also confessed he found he had only become attractive to others since pushing into his 30s, and that this made the thought someone would use his image for online dating amusing.

I expected our conversation to be stilted, awkward with the revelation that I was in contact because I initially responded favourably on a dating site to his image. Instead, we ended up talking throughout my night and his day.

It was like talking with someone you’ve known for so long you take the comfort for granted. I sensed the shared jangle of arrogant nerves from someone else who wants to prove themselves as we exchanged stories about work and childhood. Our secrets spilled out. First, the acceptable secrets we all keep in our front pocket, able to show in a moment, and then those other secrets, less easily accessed.

We found we were quite alike in many ways. We both used our creative work to process our lives, sometimes on an uncomfortably public level. We traded advice on ways to improve our work, swapping links and documents as we talked. For whatever reason, the initial fear you might expect when sharing advice or personal work with a stranger was non-existent, and we critiqued each other like old workmates with their own laser-precise shorthand.

By the end of our marathon call, we’d become friends on Facebook and Carlin messaged to wish me sweet dreams.

Despite our apparent connection, I expected he would become another person fading into invisibility in the waves of social media. But we have kept in touch. It’s not a romantic relationship. There’s no flirting and our subsequent talks have been playful but focused on projects, asking each other for advice or rattling off our views on topics veering from bondage, Chilean volcanoes and the most polite countries in Europe. He needles me to dedicate a book to him; I pester him to put me in the credits for his next film. We have devised a plan to write a film script together.

It’s both unnerving and relaxing to have developed a friendship so quickly, and through the odd chance of meeting because of a stolen identity. Our identities are hammered together, in life and online – how we present ourselves physically, what we ask and don’t ask, what we reveal and what we withhold. I feel slight waves of both revulsion and relief when through this sudden and candid relationship I become more aware of how I appear to others.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on May 16, 2015 as "Faking the bait".

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Amy Gray is a Melbourne-based writer.

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