I invented catfishing before Catfish.
In 2010, the filmmaker Nev Schulman documented a journey of discovery — the discovery, to be specific, that the perfect girl he’d met online and fallen in love with was someone else entirely. The movie he made about his experience, Catfish, was later spun off into an MTV show of the same name; since then, “catfishing” has entered the cultural lexicon as an easy shorthand for the all-too-frequent practice of enticing unsuspecting marks by impersonating someone else — or straight-up fabricating an identity — online.
The thing is, not to brag, my best friend, Jackie, and I came up with the concept of lying to other people for fun in 2006.
(Names have been changed because I still see some of the people I fooled, and Jackie will kill me if anyone identifies her.)
The summer after my freshman year of college, Jackie and I were really bored. Not only were we bored, we were also fat, self-loathing, insecure, and recently dumped by college boyfriends. We were less interested in fixing any of our problems than in wallowing in them, and Jackie and I bonded tremendously over our shared unwillingness to change. We stayed up way past normal human hours and went on 3 a.m. drives to McDonald’s, ordering Big Macs and large fries and Cokes (Diet, of course). We shoplifted bras and bathing suits from the Gap. And we … created a fake “Hot Guy” Facebook profile to mess with our former high school classmates.
At the time, Facebook had recently started to give access to anyone with any email address — not just the .edu email addresses that marked a person as a college student. Ten years later, from the vantage point of 2016, it’s easy to see this as an inevitable development in Facebook’s world-conquering ambitions. At the time, from the vantage point of a Volkswagen Jetta that smelled like McDonald’s fries, it just seemed annoying. The people we’d gone to high school with didn’t deserve access to Facebook. Access to the college-kid social network was the only thing we had over the pretty, popular girls in the grades below us. And now it was being taken away.
I don’t remember exactly how it happened, or if we really thought through our motivations, but at some point that summer, Jackie and I went to a diner, ordered fried food, and decided, “we should make a fake Facebook profile of a hot guy who will be a senior at our former high school, and fuck with all of those undeserving new Facebook users.”
Using a Yahoo email address we had just made up, we built a profile. Our catfish’s name was Jake Goldman and he was — per the Facebook account we created — going to be a senior at our high school. We found pictures of a guy who looked like the kind of guy that girls across the suburban Northeast are known to fall for. Jake loved lacrosse. Jake loved Family Guy. Jake loved keggers and DMB and the Counting Crows and Phish — “all music but country.” Jake had “never read a book lol,” and Jake loved partying with his boys. Jake was not in a relationship. Jake would be living in the most expensive part of the school district: walking distance to the country club. Jake would be “starting at XY high school and was amped.”
Jake was the most fun Jackie and I had all summer. We put an enormous amount of work into him, tweaking his profile and finding out-of-focus and dark photos of men who could feasibly be Jake. It was an incredible, gleeful rush — the sudden realization that we had at our fingertips the power to create the kind of desirable human being that we ourselves might have pined over. And, in the process, embarrass the girls we resented.
It’s not that things went according to plan, it’s that things went too according to plan. Within minutes of setting Jake’s profile live and opening our creation for business, girls, girls we knew, were flocking to his page and sending friend requests. We accepted all of them. No one seemed to suspect that Facebook was ripe for this kind of lying and manipulation. The word “thirsty” did not exist in 2006, but it’s the only way to describe what was happening:
“Heyy jake, welcome to XYHS hehe. they dont have rugby at our school so that kinda sucks but like everyone plays lax.. are you like happy youre moving or pissed,” one girl wrote.
“Family Guy is the one show i watch religiously!” Another chimed in.
“Not much to do hereeeeee haha, but we do like to party with ourselves,” a more chill girl penned.
And it wasn’t just girls. From a fellow junior-going-into-senior-year guy: “So wuts up dude, hear ur new, hear u play lax, thats cool, i play lax too. Let me know once u get into town and are settled in and shit and we can go shoot at the field. -peace.”
Jackie and I spent the rest of that day (and probably the rest of that week, though I can’t remember any of it) dissolved in laughter. We were delighted. We couldn’t believe we got away with it.
And then, well, we got bored. We’d successfully fooled a bunch of girls we disliked, but … why? What their messages showed wasn’t stupidity or vacuity but desperation and desire — the same things we hated about ourselves. Maybe we were the ones who didn’t really deserve Facebook.
I can’t defend any of it, really. Catfishing is, by basically any system of moral judgment, wrong. It’s sociopathic behavior deployed by the damaged. But, well, the thing is: Catfishing helped me confront my self-loathing and overcome some of the most damaged parts of myself. At the time, messing with girls younger than we were was an easy way to feel back on top. We were projecting our own issues out into the world. Insecure, uncomfortable in our new, heavier bodies, we had been dumped for cooler women by guys we assumed would never leave our sides. Putting ourselves in control of a new, desirable, attractive identity gave us a sense of accomplishment and power. But it turned out to be not that much different from our nightly trips to McDonald’s: a quick rush, and then a crash. We could be Jake Goldman on Facebook, but in real life we hadn’t changed anything at all.
I went back to college for sophomore year. Lost weight. Finally got over my ex and, in turn, stopped holding a grudge against him for dumping me. Life went on for all of us. After a few months, when it was clear Jake Goldman had appeared on Facebook, caused a commotion, and was never heard from again, we started telling our friends what we had done and friended all of them under Jake’s name. Soon, Jake’s wall was full of messages from me and Jackie and half of our social circle. One of our friends even used Jake as her stand-in boyfriend when trying to make an ex jealous. Jake was the super-hot guy from home who just never visited or changed his Facebook profile photo. Every October 12, we wished him a happy birthday.
It’s been ten years since Jackie and I invented Jake Goldman. We can’t remember the password or the email we used to set up shop, and after spending many hours attempting to gain access, we’ve decided to give up. If Jake has survived this long, he deserves to keep on living, if only as an infrequent digital reminder that pretending to be someone else won’t solve all of your problems. But it can get you through a bad summer.