My first major foray into the world wide web was on my fourteenth birthday in 1999 when my mom bought me a WebTV, a VCR-like device that used the home landline to stream a crude version of the Internet through the television. I was in eighth grade, fat, bespectacled, queer but confused, poor, unstylish, too smart for my own good, and utterly friendless. I sat at the loser table in the cafeteria. I imagine one of those tables could seat about thirty students, and all of the tables in the room were full except for ours, which sat only five other people besides myself--Roberto, also fat; Richard, also queer; Josh, also poor; Kenny, also unstylish; and Angelo, who by all means should have been cool yet sat at the table, I suppose, for reasons of self-hatred. I hated them all, and I hated myself for sitting with them. If I had been a little less fat, a little less poor, a little less gay, I figured, then I could have been cool and popular like I had been in elementary school. I could be living it up with friends, who would appreciate my humor and intelligence, rather than wallowing in our pool of bickering and self-loathing.
On the Internet, though, I didn't have to wear oversized polo shirts from Dollar General. I didn't have to be chubby and wear dorky glasses. I could be gay without anyone lashing out at me or avoiding me like the plague. I could even have a boyfriend if I wanted to, who would judge me for my wit, my humor, and my grammar rather than my bad haircut and embarrassing laugh. Anything I wanted to change, I could change. Anything I desired to be--say, a British film critic--I could be. Anything I wished to forget was nonexistent.
Even my age became malleable. In chatrooms few people would take me seriously as a fourteen-year-old, so to avoid the bullying I simply added a decade. I became Stephen the twenty-four-year-old, and to accommodate the increase I invented an occupation, a partner, a whole ten-year history of working and schooling and lovemaking and adventuring, all so that people wouldn't dismiss me for being a teenager. It was still the same old me making the jokes, imparting the wisdom, and chatting it up; only the vehicle was slightly modified.
By 2000 I had met a woman named Margaret in a chatroom about movies. She lived in Queens, New York, and she ran a catering business. She was twenty-five. Her sense of humor and her personality meshed perfectly with mine, and soon I migrated from chatrooms to instant messaging. We would talk for hours on end about everything going on in our minds and our lives. Sometimes we would chat until the sun was rising. In tenth grade she was my best friend and one of my only friends, and she thought I was the same age as her. I hated lying to her, but more than that I feared the repercussions that would come from telling the truth. Would she despise me? Knowing that our friendship had been, to an extent, a charade, would that make her sad or angry? I needed a friend desperately, someone I could talk to about being gay, someone I could talk to period, and I didn't want to jeopardize that.
But in the end my conscience won out. I get major qualms from being dishonest, and I could no longer stomach inventing details about my days at work at the furniture store when I had never had a job in my life. I disappeared completely. I stopped using the messenger. I ceased going to chatrooms. I stopped responding to her emails. And in the long run I made friends who were my own age, real people in the real world who actually knew who I was, some of them completely. I found a boyfriend, I found a real life best friend, I got an actual job and went on actual adventures. A couple years later, happy in my new life, I contacted her by email, confessing the truth, attaching photographs, and apologizing for my disappearance. Her response was short and thankful, and it was the last I ever heard from her.
When Friendster became big, and then Myspace, and finally Facebook, I always searched for her in hope of rekindling some more honest, more fulfilling friendship. We had chatted for some untold hundreds of hours--on the Internet and over the phone--and had shared an infinite number of jokes, hopes, and fears. I thought about her often, and I thought we should still be friends. But, surprisingly, she had no profiles on any of those sites--not even blank ones.
And in all that time, in nearly a decade, it never once occurred to me to ask some rather blaring questions about my friend and to stand back and think about what I had done to her. Margaret was a twenty-five year old woman who had a job and an adult life; how was she able to spend twelve hours a day goofing off with me on the Internet, chatting from seven p.m. to seven a.m. with little interruption? I didn't have any responsibilities on a July morning when school was out, but didn't she have a life to run, work to do, errands to perform, real friends to see?
Early this year I googled her name and found an article that a friend of hers had written for a British health website. The article detailed the psychological problems that Margaret had had since her mother died when Margaret was a teenager, problems she had hinted at to me only rarely. It detailed an obsession with comfort eating that had caused Margaret to grow to over seven hundred pounds, leaving her disabled and housebound. She didn't have a job, and she didn't run errands. And of all the "real friends" that I figured adults were supposed to have, it turns out I was one of the only ones. The article detailed long hours spent on the Internet: "'It's too hard for me to get out,' she admitted. 'It's the only way I can talk to friends.'" And then, on September 25, 2003, she died at age 27 after spending an entire night hunched over her keyboard. I could never find her on Facebook because she had died before it was invented.
I had lied to Margaret about my age and my insecurities, and she had concealed from me her disability and her own insecurities. We loved each other and needed each other, but our hatred of ourselves had kept us forever divided. It had never occurred to me, selfish as I was, that by removing myself from her life, I was removing a large part of her social life, taking away from her one of her only confidants. If I had trusted her and had faith that our friendship could have overcome my failings, then perhaps she could have trusted me. It's ridiculous for me to think that I killed her, and yet I wonder what small benefits could have come from a little honesty, compassion, and heart-to-heart.
The Internet doesn't allow for much of that. The Internet offers wish fulfillment and easy fantasies, comfort and isolation. You can find what you want to find--even if you're a cannibalism fetishist or a Jewish antisemite--and you can be what you want to be. If you see something you don't like or that doesn't interest you, you can click away from it in an instant--or sound off endlessly with no fear of repercussion, no need for fact-checking or self-disclosure, and without having to listen to any rebuttals. The Internet, the cold screen we stare at for hours each day, the treatment for our ailments--be they stress, depression, insomnia, or anxiety--the answers to all our questions, the solutions to all our problems, the source of all our financial, occupational, and social hopes and dreams, our entertainer, our great distractor, our confidant, our guru--the Internet has promised us something that heretofore has never been possible in the hundreds of thousands of years of human evolution: that we can survive and prosper without the outside world and without each other.
This is ostensibly a review of Catfish, the controversial documentary by Ariel Schulman and Henry Joost, and yet I've written ten paragraphs without apparently saying anything about the film. Nevertheless, I feel I've already said almost everything I need to say about this heart-wrenching, insightful, and poignant movie. Catfish is best experienced, I think, without too much prior information about its subject. Documenting the burgeoning relationship on Facebook between the filmmaker's brother Yaniv "Niv" Schulman in New York City and Megan Faccio, a beautiful young woman in rural Michigan, Catfish slyly deconstructs our relationship with the Internet and its world of empty possibilities. Using imagery from Google Maps and web pages, closeups of cell phones and digital cameras and GPS devices, and sound from voice mails, the film unravels the conceits of the Information Age. The screens we stare at don't always offer us a glimpse of reality. The quagmire of data at our fingertips can both elucidate and obfuscate.
By its tearful conclusion, Catfish is nothing short of a heartbreaking examination of the American Dream as it exists at the beginning of the twenty-first century. Our hopes and fantasies no longer lie at the end of the seven seas, out in the wild west, or in the outer reaches of the cosmos. We have drowned our futures in the murky chaos of the digital world, where satisfaction is never tangible and rarely yields anything we can truly embrace.
Catfish is one of the best films, if not the very best film, of 2010.
d: Ariel Schulman, Henry Joost
(Yaniv Schulman, Ariel Schulman, Angela Pierce)