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“Don’t trust anyone you meet on the Internet!” These were the words that repetitively came out of my father’s mouth when I first became active on the social media site, AOL Instant Messenger. Luckily, I never ran into a problem because I did not use social media sites as a way to meet people. Instead, I would use these sites as a way to connect with classmates, neighbors, and other friends. Because I used social networking sites as a way to enhance previously existing friendships, I did not have any reason to question the trustworthiness of the people I was talking to online. If I had been meeting new people on social networking sites, I’m sure that I would have listened to my father’s advice. However, many people do not question the authenticity of those that they meet online. Sometimes this is not an issue, but many times it is.

In the 2010 documentary Catfish, Nev, a young photographer living in New York City, builds an extensive relationship through Facebook with a family in Michigan. The connection began when 8-year-old Abby mailed Nev a painting of one of his photos.  Nev recognized how talented this young girl was, and became friends with her on Facebook. As their relationship grew, Nev became Facebook friends with Abby’s mother, Angela, father, Vince, and older and attractive half-sister, Megan. As time goes on, Nev builds a close romantic relationship with Megan, and the two speak frequently and intimately. Megan, the apparent singer, dancer, and artist, sends Nev recordings of her singing. Once Nev discovers that the recordings are not actually Megan, but are YouTube clips, he begins to doubt the authenticity of the relationship. Different questionable signs pop up, and Nev resolves to travel to Michigan with his brothers to meet this family. After a few days, Nev learns that he never actually spoke with Megan, the Facebook pictures were not pictures of the actual family, and Abby was not the one who was painting Nev’s photographs: it was all Abby’s mother, Angela.

catfish

Image courtesy of Flickr user Caspy2003

This documentary leaves the audience feeling sympathetic for Nev, and anger towards the Angela. But can we even trust Nev? Can we trust the documentary? Many people argue that the documentary is a complete hoax– filmed professionally, scripted, and starring actors.

So, can we trust any of the people we meet in cyber world? In “Personal Connections in the Digital Age”, Nancy Baym argues that there’s no reason to believe people are less trustworthy online than they are in person. Baym says that although people may lie online, face-to-face interaction isn’t always truthful either. While Baym’s point does hold true, Catfish is a direct example of the possibility of deceitful relationships online. Although you can never be sure whether or not people are telling the truth in any context, the next time you log into Facebook, do yourself a favor and remember my father’s wise words.

Feature image courtesy of Flickr user Global X

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