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Published September 20th 2018

Fake it ‘Til You Make it (Or Don’t) Part 4: Are We All Catfish?

Our "Fake it 'til you make it" blog series examines the glossy veil social media can place over shaky foundations. Our fourth part focuses on the online personas we all carefully curate.

So far in our series of “Fake it ’til you make it’ blogs we’ve looked at events that over-promised and (massively) underdelivered, shiny storefronts for tatty goods, and the ways individuals and companies can create the false impression of influence.

Today, we’re turning our gaze to the concept of “catfishing” and asking whether we’re all a bit guilty of indulging in it.

According to Urban Dictionary, a catfish is:

“Someone who pretends to be someone else, especially on the internet.”

Social media gives us all the power to highlight some parts of ourselves and cover up others. It can also give us the power to craft fiction under our own names or pseudonyms.

I’m interested in exploring the idea that we’re all catfish. Through the selective, calculated process of publishing and omitting details to curating an online persona, aren’t we all pretending to be something or someone?

Multiplatform multiplayer

In a news interview, Charlie Brooker (writer of Black Mirror) once described Twitter as “a massive multiplayer online RPG in which you choose an avatar and you act out a persona loosely based on your own in order to gain followers. It’s a video game.”

The presenter interviewing him had the same reaction I imagine most people have to that statement – Twitter isn’t a video game. It’s a place we write about what we think and what’s going on in our lives.

I would argue the more controversial statement is that the aim of the game is to gain followers, which isn’t necessarily the goal of every Twitter user. On the other hand, the part about acting out a persona certainly rang true for me.

There are plenty of things I’d post on Facebook but wouldn’t post on Twitter. There are plenty of things I’d say on Twitter that I wouldn’t say on LinkedIn. I’m more talkative on Slack than I am in real life. I’m more articulate on the Brandwatch blog than I am when I chat on the phone to my sister. Each of these platforms have a connected but subtly different collection of information about me, from costume party photos to the professional connections I’ve built over the years.

Since all these platforms show a different and specific side to me, perhaps conflicting at times, does that mean that they’re not reflective of my true self? Am I a catfish?

Playing to an audience

In our blog post around the differences in our behavior between search and social we discussed how people act differently under observation. Newcastle University’s School of Psychology demonstrated that even the most subtle symbols of observation can be enough to change people’s behavior.

In a university cafeteria the academics tested the effects of posters with eyes on them (and various iterations of those posters) on whether people would pick up their litter once they had finished eating.

“We found a halving of the odds of littering in the presence of posters featuring eyes, as compared to posters featuring flowers.”

– Newcastle University, “Effects of eye images on everyday cooperative behavior: a field experiment”

Not only do we change our behavior based on being observed, we also change our behavior based on who is observing us. We might act differently around our grandparents than we do around our best friend, just like we might make different actions on LinkedIn in front of our colleagues than we might in a Facebook Messenger group chat.

It all depends on the audience.

Catfishing under the microscope

The idea for this blog post originally came from the first episode of Channel 4’s The Circle that aired in the UK on 18 September. The premise of the show is that a group of people live in an apartment block but never meet in person – instead, they’ll spend the duration of the show chatting with each other on a private social network, attempting to gain popularity and not get blocked by their peers.

The contestants have full control over their bio and group chats but there’s no obligation for them to be themselves at all. And all they know about their audience is what they’ve chosen to present – it’s fascinating to see how quickly impressions are made based on a few interactions, and how the contestants choose to play out scenarios based on who they think they’re talking to.

In the opening episode we were introduced to Katie, who is actually Alex – a guy using photos of his girlfriend and an entirely fictitious personality that he thinks will be more popular than his own. We also have Jennifer who is impersonating a junior doctor who works with cancer patients because she thinks it’s a universally trusted profession – she’s surprised when nobody questions it. A contestant named Janelle has entered the building with her baby daughter but isn’t telling anyone that her daughter exists. There’s also Freddie who included “RIP Buddy” in his bio, saying “I know I’ll gain sympathy, votes, by saying I’ve got a dead dog.” (He had prefixed this with “I can’t fucking stand animals, me.”

Meanwhile, other contestants are being less evasive about their personalities. Dan opts to admit he is an estate agent –  a potentially risky move given that nobody likes estate agents. Meanwhile, Sian is opting to use photos she probably wouldn’t post to Instagram to see if personality is more important than looks when it comes to popularity.

The show, described by one of my colleagues as “everything bad about social media under one roof”, is obviously an extreme version of what people will do to gain popularity online. It’s got a Black Mirror eeriness about it – and not just because they rate each other out of 5 on likability and inhabit a sterile looking apartment complex with screens in every room. Viewers watch the contestants craft their chat replies in real time, editing themselves to appear more friendly or flirty, and pondering on which photo to choose as their first profile picture. While most of us wouldn’t lie about dead pets or our professional field to gain attention online, the contestants’ behavior isn’t totally divorced from the ways we all curate our online personas.

One self, many sides?

As we’ve written before:

“While we are curating a persona, we are not necessarily being disingenuous to our “true” selves… When we write notes of condolence, messages of complaint or sprawling rants about politics we’re not expressing any less of an honest angle of ourselves than if we’re anonymously searching online for how to get rid of a verruca.”

Whether or not we are catfish depends, according to Urban Dictionary, on whether we are pretending to be something we’re not. Unless we’re going out of our way to deceive – to knowingly lie about an aspect of ourselves in our online interactions – I’m not sure if we can all be considered catfish. There’s a big difference between someone omitting their embarrassing college photos from their LinkedIn profile and someone pretending they’re a doctor when they’re not or using fake or stolen pictures. But there’s definitely a grey area. Using an old photo on your dating profile or massively overstating your skills in a particular area on your online professional profiles feels catfishy to me.

The different ways people present themselves across different platforms can present a problem for marketers. How can a single customer view or accurate target persona be built when one customer might have multiple online personalities or display conflicting preferences? Blending datasets is one way to bring these floating strands together and build a more accurate picture – relying on a single source could mean your perception of your customers is skewed.

We might not all be catfish, but we are all expert curators of our online profiles and everyone has different goals and audiences they want to target and impress. Whether we’re conducting an in-depth social data analysis or scrolling through the fantastic-looking lives of our peers we should all remember that.

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