Catfish the Television Show and the Social Element of Selves
By Kevin Currie-Knight
How much can a person’s sense of who they are change in response to how they think others see them? What if what the others are responding to is a false representation of the person? If Sam presents fake pictures of himself online, and others online tell him he is attractive based on those pictures, might that be enough to cause the real Sam to feel more attractive?
Recently, I’ve been taken by Catfish: The TV Show, a show that might offer an answer. On the show, two co-hosts help people (called “hopefuls”) meet up with folks they’ve been in online relationships with but haven’t met in person (called “catfish”). (“Catfish” by the way, is a term referring to folks who meet people online using fake social media profiles.) The catfish rarely turn out to be the people they represent online. Sometimes, the only things that are faked are the profile pictures and maybe the name, but other times, the hopefuls meet someone entirely different than who they thought they were talking to online.
This, however, it is no “gotcha” show, but really aims at understanding the motives of these catfish. Generally, they are not scammers or folks who thrill at playing manipulative jokes, but people aiming to talk to others free of features they possess in RL (slang for “real life”). All of this gets me thinking about what it says about the malleability of selves: when catfish create fake profiles, they often report some sense of forgetting that they are “in character,” and that the hopeful is not talking to “the real” them, but a character. This seems to give validation to the idea that our selves are partly a function of who we believe others think we are.
Here are some examples (SPOILER ALERT). On an episode called “Vince and Alyssa” (Season 5, Episode 12), Vince meets Miranda, the woman whose false profile (Alyssa) he’d been talking to. Miranda misrepresented several details about her life, as well as her physical appearance and name. During their RL conversation, Miranda says that: ‘“When I do a fake account, people see that “Hey, this girl’s pretty. This girl you know has a great body” I don’t. When people say that stuff to me in my head, I’m reading these messages; they’re saying it to me; I feel better about myself.’ Miranda, of course, knows that those comments are directed at Alyssa rather than Miranda, but at some point, others reacting to her character as pretty gives her – Miranda – the feeling that she is pretty.
In a similar episode called “Tyreme and Tomorrow” (Season 5, Episode 9), Tyreme meets Latrease, who created a profile for a woman named Tomorrow, using a fake name, pictures of a skinnier lighter skinned girl, and she fabricated a pregnancy she said was designed to push Tyreme away (to no avail). When asked why she created and used Tomorrow’s profile rather than her own, Latrease said: “I liked it because it felt like I was in love. That’s something that I wanted with my real life…” Even though she new that Tyreme was in love with Tomorrow rather than Latrease herself, there seemed to be some sense in which talking as Tomorrow allowed Latrease to feel like Tyreme was talking to Latrease, rather than Tomorrow.
A last bit of related evidence comes from Season 5, Episode 8 – “Joanna and Bo” – where Joanna learns that Bo is actually a profile created by her acquaintance Ana. When the co-hosts sit down with Ana to ask what it feels like talking to Joanna as Bo, here’s what Ana says: ‘You forget that it’s, like… I had to even remind myself, “She’s not even talking to me me, you know?”’
For quite a while, scholars have paid much attention to what sociologist Erving Goffman calls “The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life,” the way we exercise “impression management” to influence what others think of us. Yet, Catfish The TV Show might show us something beyond that: that how we present ourselves to others actually does influence what we think about ourselves… even when we are aware that we are misrepresenting ourselves. Consciously, Miranda, Latrease, and Ana surely realize that the hopefuls are talking to misrepresentations of themselves; but at some point, what the hopefuls say to the catfish get taken as things said about themselves, not the characters they are presenting. Think, for instance, of how many interactions the catfish who only misrepresents, say, their picture and name have where name or appearance are not relevant; it is in those conversations where a catfish could, as Ana says, temporarily forget that the other sees them as something other than their RL selves. Or, since Miranda is the person Vince is talking to, even though he is complimenting Alyssa (the fake profile), the effect of those comments is internalized by Miranda, as if he is saying those things to her.
Three philosophers might help us understand how this can be so. First, there is William James who recognized in his book Principles of Psychology that “a man has as many social selves as there are individuals who recognize him and carry an image of him in their mind. To wound any one of these images is to wound him (original italics)” In different social situations I will present in different ways, to the point where we can call each of these different selves, and despite these each being distinct selves, what is said or done to one of these will influence the person who gave rise to those selves.
Pragmatist philosopher and sociologist George Herbert Mead elaborated on a Jamesian view of the social component of selfhood. To Mead, our concept of who we are is always a product of our taking in others’ reactions to us. Mead distinguished between the “me” and the “I,” or roughly the self as object (me) and as subject (I). The “me” is what I picture when I observe and remember how others react to me; the “I” is the sense of self I formulate (and continually reformulate) in reaction to what I think others think of me. If I’m in a social situation and I tell a joke, I may find that others find that joke funny, and maybe seem to appreciate when I play the role of the jokester more than when I am in other moods. I notice how others respond (to “me”) and I (as “I”) adjust my future sense of self accordingly: I become a jokester and internalize that role because others (at least in certain situations) respond favorably to me that way.
In Being and Nothingness, existentialist philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre had a similar take on the social nature of self-consciousness. In a section of his book on what he calls being-for-others (as opposed to being-for-itself), Sartre talks about how the look of others on us (what others have called “the gaze”) affects our view of ourselves. He makes the point by having us imagine a solitary walk in the garden, where we are not self-conscious because we believe we are alone. When we do see another person and notice them looking at us, we become self-conscious because we now imagine ourselves as we appear to the other. We can, of course, never view ourselves the way the other views us, for we cannot get into their inner experience to know how the other views us. We can, though, and generally do imagine how the other probably views us and this image goes on to affect how we view ourselves.
We’ve likely all had this kind of experience before. Maybe we went out before we had a chance to dress and present nicely to others, and when we see others seeing us, we imagine that they are seeing us as dirty or unkempt, so we begin to see ourselves that way, maybe even avoiding contact with others on our excursion. Whereas Sartre talks about the look of others primarily as a negative thing, I think it can be experienced in a positive way also. For instance, when I was beginning my career as a teacher, I was shy and uncomfortable in positions of authority. I learned, however, to act as if I were confident and authoritative, until at some point, students saw me that way. Their seeing me that way affected how I saw myself until, via a bootstrapping effect, I no longer had to act self-confident, because I was self-confident.
Is this, though, a far cry from Miranda coming to believe that she is pretty because those who interact with a fake profile she created (with fake pictures) tell the girl in the profile that she is pretty? In other words, maybe it could be argued that the reason others responding to my show of self-confidence improves my sense of self-confidence is because I know others are reacting to something that I am really displaying, rather than, say, someone else who is self-confident passing themselves off as me. In Miranda’s case, she does, after all, sadly know that the pictures people are saying “You’re pretty!” to are not of her. For that reason, it still seems strange to say that Miranda could in some sense “mistake” their comments for comments about her, thereby coming to see herself as pretty based on those comments.
But the sense of self is remarkably malleable. We often hear of actors getting into character in such a way that staying in character takes no conscious effort. Though some dispute that the Stanford Prison Experiment showed what it purported to show, at very least, it showed that people asked to play guards and prisoners took only a very short time to get fully into character, even to the point where they acted in ways they’d not likely have acted outside the simulation. We can also imagine, say, an experiment where generally attractive people are asked to put on a disguise that makes them look disfigured or ugly for a period of some weeks. My suspicion is that people’s negative reaction to them will, at some point, affect their very real sense of self-esteem, and that they will forget in some sense that the reactions are to a disguise, not to them.
Science is also giving us a glimpse at how malleable our senses of self are in social situations. Jin (2012) describes two studies where players of an online game are asked to create avatars to represent themselves in the game. One group is asked to create, and interact with, avatars resembling their RL selves, and another group is asked to create, and interact with, avatars representing their “ideal selves.” In both studies, a bootstrapping effect occurred that was strongest among the group who constructed avatars representing their ideal selves. In other words, they reported coming to identify quite strongly with their ideal selves. Yee and Bailinson (2007) report the results of experiments according to which how people interact in an online game is largely a function of the attributes of their avatar; players with taller avatars behaved more confidently and those with more conventionally attractive avatars revealed more about themselves to others.
So, if catfish who misrepresent themselves to appear more attractive are interacting online with folks they know believe they’re someone else, why do these catfish report gaining some sense that the others are in relationships with them in RL? I suggest that the above cases give us reason to think that our sense of self may just be malleable enough to where we could come to identify (at least temporarily) with the characteristics of online profiles; the more others respond to us as the characters we’ve created, the more we might come to internalize a sense of self that resembles the character. While this does not mean that we’ll likely ever mistake ourselves consciously for the character, we might temporarily forget (when talking to others) that the “us” others see is anyone other than “us in RL.” Maybe Ana is correct when she says that at some point, one forgets that one is oneself, not one’s profile.
Dr. Kevin Currie-Knight is a Teaching Assistant Professor in East Carolina University’s College of Education. There, he teaches classes on topics ranging from educational psychology to the political and philosophical foundations of education. He is a frequent contributor to The Freeman magazine, and hosts a video interview series called Schooled: Conversations About Education.