Social Media: Don't Be a Stranger

Social media keep old friends close, but the Web used to be for strangers.

| May/June 2013

  • Don't Be A Stranger
    Today's skepticism of online relationships would dismay the early theorists of the internet. For them, the ability to communicate with anyone, anywhere, from the privacy of our "electronic caves" was a boon to human interaction.
    Illustration By Sebastien Thibault

  • Don't Be A Stranger

The Internet of 2006 was not much different than it is today, mainly less: a bit slower, sparser, less open for business, like your hometown before the strip mall got put in. It was on this internet that I met my best friend, Austin (not his real name). I was taking some time off from college in Portland, Oregon and had become an active member of a Portland-based online DIY community called Urban Honking. Urban Honking featured a stable of blogs about studiedly eclectic subjects like rap music, vegan cooking, and science fiction, but I spent most of my time on the message board, where a few dozen mostly twentysomethings traded music recommendations and outlandish project ideas. At the time I was making stupid comedy videos and I’d share them with Urban Honking as I finished them. Austin was also an active Urban Honking poster, and a few months after I joined he sent me an email from his Yahoo! Mail account. “Hey dude,” Austin wrote, “I saw you on the UrHo message board and wanted to get in touch because I like being funny and making videos.” 

When someone asks me how I know someone and I say “the internet,” there is often a subtle pause, as if I had revealed we’d met through a benign but vaguely kinky hobby, like glassblowing class, maybe. The first generation of digital natives is coming of age, but two strangers meeting online is still suspicious. What’s more, online venues that encourage strangers to form lasting friendships are dying out. Forums and emailing are being replaced by Facebook, which was built on the premise that people would rather carefully populate their online life with just a handful of “real” friends and shut out all the trolls, stalkers, and scammers. Now that distrust of online strangers is embedded in the code of our most popular social network, it is becoming increasingly unlikely for people to interact with anyone online they don’t already know.

Some might be relieved. The online stranger is the great boogeyman of the information age; in the mid-2000s, media reports might have had you believe that MySpace was essentially an easily-searchable catalogue of fresh victims for serial killers, rapists, cyber-stalkers, and Tila Tequila. These days, we’re warned of “catfish” con artists who create attractive fake online personae and begin relationships with strangers to satisfy some sociopathic emotional need. The term comes from the documentary Catfish and the new MTV reality show of the same name.

The technopanics over online strangers haunting the early social web were propelled by straight-up fear of unknown technology. Catfish shows that the fear hasn’t vanished with social media’s ubiquity, it’s just become as banal as the technology itself. Each episode follows squirrelly millennial filmmaker Nev Schulman as he introduces someone in real life to a close friend or lover they’ve only known online. Things usually don’t turn out as well as it did for me and Austin, to say the least. In the first episode, peppy Arkansas college student Sunny gushes to Schulman over her longtime internet boyfriend, a male model and medical student named Jamison. They have never met or even video-chatted, but Sunny knows Jamison is The One.

But when Schulman calls Jamison’s phone to get his side of the story it’s answered by someone who sounds like a middle-schooler pretending to be ten years older to buy beer at a gas station. Each detail of Jamison’s biography is more improbable than the last. The only surprise when Sunny and Schulman arrive at Jamison’s house in Alabama and learn that the chiseled male model she fell for is actually a sun-deprived young woman named Chelsea, is how completely remorseless Chelsea is about the whole thing.

But Catfish isn’t a cautionary tale about normal people being victimized by weirdos they meet on the internet. Instead, Catfish indicts the entire practice of online friendship as a depressing massively multiplayer online game in which the deranged entertain the deluded. Catfish is Jerry Springer for the social media age. Like the sad, bickering subjects of Springer’s show, Sunny and Jamison deserve each other. 

Harvey Whitney
6/6/2013 1:28:01 AM

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