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Love, Lies and Identity in the Digital Age (Book Review)

I have a confession. I have one TV show that I still watch on MTV. A guilty pleasure, called Catfish: The TV Show. I could argue that it is because the context fits into my research and writing. But sometimes – it’s just pure entertainment and intrigue.

Urban dictionary defines a Catfish as, “someone who pretends to be someone they’re not using Facebook or other social media to create false identities, particularly to pursue deceptive online romances.”

Catfish: The TV Show is derived from a documentary film made in 2010 by Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman that featured Ariel’s brother Nev, who himself had been “catfished” on Facebook. 
Before this movie and TV show the term catfish did not exist. Since 2010, dozens of dating applications have popped up online like Tinder, which continue to complicate dating and finding love.
Hosted by Nev Schulman and Max Joseph, Catfish: The TV Show is on its fourth season of uncovering the love and lies in finding love online. The success of the show has uncovered the unfortunate reality of twisting digital identities – many times using real people’s photos who have no idea their identities are being used, as well as the person being ‘catfished.’
Because of my interest in the show, as well as research and work around digital identity, reputation and leadership, when Nev released his first book called “In Real Life: Love, Lies and Identity in the Digital Age” I immediately downloaded it.
In this post I would like to share with you a few highlights from Nev’s book.

The text went into many details of the tv show, as well as the author’s experience being catfished. I also learned Nev was quite a troublemaker growing up. In college, he was a frequent visitor to his Resident Director and Judicial Affairs. He was finally able to put his rebellious nature into helping others.
I found four themes that I felt were important for educators, parents and college students to take away – no matter if you are looking for love online, think you are being catfished or are just trying to figure out relationships in the time of technology.
In Real Life: Love, Lies, and Identity in the Digital Age contained relatable and important direction for everyone trying to be connected online and off. These include: Live a Real Life, Online Accountability, Friend Yourself First and Be a Content Creator not Just Consumer.

Live a Real Life

From Nev’s personal experience being catfished and producing the TV for four seasons, he declared, “It’s time to stop living IRL, and start living in real life.” Life isn’t all about the likes, posts and shares. It is easy to get caught up in friend requests and building influence. His book called to the reader to put more time into living a full life, than a full profile.
At our core, we want human interaction and acceptance. This ties into catfishing because,

“It’s the most extreme symptom of a trend in society away from the honesty and confidence that a face-to-face relationship demands and toward the isolation and cowardice of online connections. It’s about the insecurity at the center of online life. About the fear of a real life lived in public that drives people to decide that it’s better to pretend to be someone else entirely.”

This too has been my perspective:that when issues erupt on social media – such as a harmful Facebook post or a crude anonymous post on YikYak – the person posting is having personal issue in “real life,” and digital tools are used to express a byproduct of those issues.
Research has also confirmed this; studies have revealed those predisposed for depression, loneliness and stress will only find more of this when social media is mixed in. 
Nev shares that most of the individuals that catfish others want the same thing everyone does: “to be liked and accepted.” However, he states further they are unmotivated to seek those things in reality.

The author shares, “the Internet is just an escape; the personal issues that have triggered their behavior will not go away until they step away from the computer and start dealing with real life.”

And here is where I look at Digital Education as an intervention- which is exactly what the show Catfish is all about – which just happens to be broadcasted to millions of viewers.
Nev asks the following question to readers: “Do you present yourself online as being far closer to those ideals than you are in real life?” Here, he starts to uncover the lies people tell themselves – or the lies people post about. Call it self-presentation or self-performance on social media, but the author believes these lies online can be, “so subtle that we sometimes don’t even admit to ourselves that we’re lying.”

Online Accountability

I am not a huge fan of only pushing scare tactics about social media. Being catfished and this MTV show is an extreme version of what can happen online. It is not the norm. So, I was happy to see this book provide not just the horror stories of those that had been on the show, but also tools (including guidelines) for online accountability – especially for yourself.
He believes that, “If everyone tried to live by the following rules, the Internet would be a much nicer—and more productive—place.” This is definitely something I can get behind!

  • Remember that you’re talking to real people. Don’t say it online if you wouldn’t say it to someone’s face.
  • Find a constructive way to express yourself rather than defaulting to a snarky shorthand. Say what you really mean, but say it nicely. Craft a thoughtful opinion.
  • Before you hit “post” on anything, read your post out loud. Think about how you’d feel if someone said the same thing to you.
  • Don’t post anonymously as a way to vent. It’s cowardly.
  • Don’t pick a fight just for the sake of entertainment.

Screenshot 2015-12-13 13.16.08Friend Yourself First

This theme of the text was the most inspiring, and honestly something I was not expecting from the author.

Quotes like “Only by embracing who you really are can you get the things you really want” and “No number of “likes” or “friends” is ever going to fill you with the sense of self and confidence you’re seeking” will definitely be included in my future talks to high school and college students.”

I can tell the author is deeply connected to the people on his show, as well as the young audience that follows him online. He realizes many of them need support. Nev declared at the close of one chapter, “Repeat after me: I am awesome. And you are. You have the potential to do great things. No matter who you are, what you look like, your background or your sexual preference or the balance of your bank account: The only person holding you back is you. I want you to feel great. I know you can.”
The author approached finding a balance between seeking relationships online while maintaining and fostering friendships face to face. If your digital friendships are replacing your real-life friendships—and if your profile persona is replacing your real-life personality—it’s time to have a real talk with yourself about whether or not you are doing the work that will bring you real satisfaction.
And just about my favorite quote of the entire book,

“This is a book about friending yourself.”

This is the smallest of statements, with the most significance and strength. Whether you are a teen, educator or a parent- this statement needs to pull at your core.

Be a Content Creator, not just a Consumer

I loved the paradigm shift Nev proposed. Do not just log in and scroll. Make being a content creator a philosophy on life. Are you actively producing original experiences and work, or just going through the motions?
shutterstock_314305691 (1)
When it comes to social media, the author explains,  

“A consumer is someone who merely “likes” and shares things that other people make and post on social media sites; a creator, on the other hand, is someone who is generating that original material, whether they are a comedian tweeting jokes or a blogger uploading their own videos. Creators have an original voice.”

Nev wants people to be doers, filled with, “amazing and inspiring encounters. Instead of passively documenting them for the people you (barely) know online, I want to challenge you to absorb these moments and do something with them—become a writer, an artist, a dancer, a thinker.”
Sound familiar, educators and parents? He is speaking our language! Live life, don’t just document it online!
Nev was unapologetically honest in this text. Both in sharing personal stories from his life, and in sharing harsh lessons he wanted readers to take away. He didn’t sugarcoat the realities of the digital age and finding love. But he does believe the Internet can be used for good – however, it needs you to make things happen!

“The Internet can suck, but it can also be great if we use it right and harness its powers for meaningful change. You can be one of the creators, using social media to distribute groundbreaking new work and ideas that alter our social fabric. Find something you believe in, something meaningful, and let that consciously inform your life, both offline and on.”

And I leave you with the ultimate take away,

“Get out of your chair and go out and change the world. We need people to set the tone and guide us, because now more than ever there’s an opportunity for new and better direction. Don’t make your goal to be liked on Facebook. Make it to stand for something.”

Some of the reviews of this book were mixed, and I can understand why. Many that watch this show are the typically MTV demographic – so they may have not excepted to read a book that at times wanted a behavior correction and not just spilling drama like the show Catfish. As a digital educator and social media researcher, I was pleasantly surprised by the goldmine of quotes and stories that the text provided.
Screenshot 2015-12-13 13.15.49A few final questions to think about – and maybe even add in the comments below:
What experience have you had trying to find and build relationships online? What is dating like in the digital age? Have you ever felt you were being catfished? When was the last time you lied online? How can we encourage youth to be active curators of content online and off?
Find this unique text on amazon and all other book stores.
Interested in hearing more about the life and leadership in the digital age? Follow me on twitter and subscribe to my newsletter below!

About Josie

I’m Dr. Josie Ahlquist—a digital engagement and leadership consultant, researcher, educator, and author. I’m passionate about helping people and organizations find purposeful ways to connect, engage, and tell their unique story. I provide consulting, executive coaching, and training for campuses, companies, and organizations that want to learn how to humanize technology tools and build effective and authentic online communities.

My blog and podcast have been recognized by EdTech Magazine, Inside Higher Ed and the Chronicle of Higher Education. My book, Digital Leadership in Higher Education, was published in 2020 and was listed as a #1 new release for college and university student life. I have been growing my consultancy since 2013 and am based in Los Angeles. When I’m not helping clients lead online, you might find me training for a triathlon, spoiling my nieces and nephews, or exploring with my husband and our rescue dogs in our new RV called Lady Hawk.

I’d love to connect! Find me on Twitter, Instagram, LinkedIn, and Facebook.

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Rebekah Tilley

Assistant Vice President, University of Iowa Center for Advancement

Rebekah Tilley is the assistant vice president of communication and marketing for the University of Iowa Center for Advancement (UICA). In that role she supports fundraising and alumni engagement efforts for the university, including its CASE Gold winning Iowa Magazine, and serves UICA in a variety of strategic communication efforts.

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