Nev Schulman (R) and Max Joseph.

IT’S DIFFICULT TO trace the origin of most Internet phrases. There’s debate over who first invented hashtag fingers or coined Internet-speak like “I can’t even. I mean.” But there’s no argument over who first introduced us to catfish. In 2010, the documentary Catfish premiered at Sundance, and a cultural phenomenon was not only named, but truly christened.

To “catfish” is to “lure someone into a relationship by adopting a fictional online persona.” The person doing the deceiving is the catfish. Nev Schulman, the subject of the 2010 documentary, first brought viewers into the world of deceptive online relationships as he attempted to track down an Internet love. The woman who turned out to be someone else entirely, a prankster using a false identity, fake pictures, and invented biographical details to trick Schulman into thinking she was real—and really in love with him. It was a perfect Internet-age mystery, with romance and heartbreak to spare.

In 2012, Schulman and his friend Max Joseph spun their concept into a reality TV show on MTV. For three years now, Catfish: The TV Show‘s rapt audience has watched Schulman and Joseph help weekly participants navigate the murky waters of Internet love, using a sampling of techniques to play detective in order to find, contact, and expose whoever is hiding behind that Facebook profile. (It almost always begins with a Facebook profile.)

Watching Catfish‘s progression is like watching the Internet’s progression. We all grow less naive over time.

Now three years on,Catfish: The TV Show is a hit. It returns to the airwaves tomorrow night, and as we watch the new episodes, it’s worth asking: How has the show evolved as everybody gets smarter? Surely, the digital cuckolds have become harder to fool. And the catfish themselves have also discovered some new tricks. Really, watching Catfish‘s progression is like watching the Internet’s progression. We all grow less naive over time.

“My ability to navigate social media and my understanding of how to investigate and engage with people via the Internet has changed a lot over the last five years,” Schulman says. “Some technical things we’ve picked up for sure, but in general, all of us have had a shift in how we use the Internet in general.”

Schulman says the scope of how we represent ourselves has changed and grown—hugely. The social Web, he says, used to sort of serve as a business card or landing page, a sort of digital introduction. Now it’s a way to catalog every single facet of our personalities.

Go back and watch the first season of Catfish for proof. In order to find the catfish (as fans of the show will know, this is the person “hiding”—the person searching to obtain the catfish’s identity is referred to as the “hopeful”) in question, the hosts would perform the simplest of Internet tricks. There’s a formula: Facebook snooping, reverse image search, Googling a phone number. At the time, these methods ranged from totally obvious to fairly novel—but now, they’re Internet 101. Now, the team has had to move beyond the basics.

“What’s really interesting is not that we’re using significantly different tools, it’s just that they understand how the architecture of the Internet works so much better,” says show producer David Metzler. “They aren’t looking for an instant answer anymore. Before where they would take a number, they’d run it through places people wouldn’t know function as search engines, like Facebook. They’ll run a phone number through Facebook, get someone’s page, put that page through Google, and eventually find something that gives them a hint. Now they dig much deeper.”

New Internet, New Tricks

In the current season, it’s obvious that Schulman and Joseph have acquired a much wider skill set. The duo still set up inside local coffee shops and hotel rooms, whip out their laptops, and go deep into the social Web—but with far greater resources to pull from. As Schulman puts it, “the Internet continues to grow as a character on the show.”

The checklist for cracking a catfish reads like a crash course in the current state of Internet detective work. Instagram is now the first stop. “They go there before Facebook now,” says Metzler. “It clues them in really quickly to information about the profile they are looking at. Numbers of followers, who’s following. The other thing they do that’s really basic but that clarifies things really quickly is see if a photo is in the square Instagram shape.” That’s genius: If it’s not a square, chances are it’s a screenshot, and thus a fake. “The hopeful is usually like, ‘Oh shit, I should have noticed that.’”

Those who’ve kept on up on their Catfish:The TV Show will remember when one hopeful was trying to track down her irrational and fleeing Internet lover. After being blown off, the team had an idea: Check her Instagram account for anything geotagged and see if they could plot her house. Indeed, they could. (Instantly, the many written warnings about tagging your home on Instagram flooded back.)

“For three episodes, geotagging became the number one thing we were able to use,” says Metzler. “Max was like, ‘Let’s check all the geotags on a photo!’ and it gave you so much information, and at that point, the iPhone was still defaulting to having your geotags on.”

It’s Catfish moments like this that illustrate how the Internet is simultaneously becoming bigger and smaller. Does the proliferation of mobile technology and social services make it easier to find the catfish, or does it give the prankster more ways to hide?

It makes things infinitely easier, says Joseph. “You get better at analyzing the results,” he says. “If a phone number you know can send and receive texts is listed as a landline, then you know it’s a Google Voice number and not a landline. So you can start reading the results in a more educated way and putting things together faster.”

Joseph says some of the investigations from season one took seven hours. Now, they come in at around two. The tools have improved, too. For-pay databases like Spokeo weren’t used in season one, but they have since become a go-to resource for the duo.

One very practical thing the team does that most of the hopefuls don’t think of: Crack a laptop. While a mobile lets you access just about every corner of the social web, really digging into the specifics of someone’s profile, saving photos, keeping multiple tabs open—these things are better done on a computer. And that’s something most teens—the show’s primary participants—don’t think to do. The smartphone is their world.

The Kids Are Not Alright

Of course, as search tools have gotten better and the investigative team has become more sophisticated, so too have the subjects who seek their aid. In season one, it’s not unusual to see a hopeful with a cracked flip phone, no broadband access, or a computer without a webcam—something which becomes the eternal red flag as the inability to videochat makes the person easier to fool. Now, most of the show’s hopefuls are Internet pros with Twitter, Vine, Snapchat, Instagram, and Facebook accounts.

As the participants have gotten more net-savvy, Schulman says he’s grown less sympathetic toward people who apply to be on the show. “There’s some frustration on my behalf, because while I know it’s my career and livelihood, I wish I could effectively work my way out of a job, so sometimes I get a little annoyed. Like, ‘You didn’t think it would be a good idea to do a little legwork on your own?’” I have to remember this show is still going not necessarily because people are lazy—it’s because they don’t want to do it, or they’re afraid to do it alone.”

While the show is mostly about the pull of Internet romance, there’s also an underlying theme of personal online security. Watch one episode and you’ll see how frighteningly easy it is for two well-trained dudes to uncover buckets of information. Max Joseph, who was absent for part of the recent season while he was directing the soon-to-be-released film We Are Your Friends, recently found himself on the other end of the game. Not long ago, someone cloned his wife’s phone number and called him saying they were holding her hostage in his own home. Luckily it wasn’t true, but it certainly gave him pause. “For the first time I went and looked myself up the way we look other people up and I found how much information about me is totally public—my phone number, my address. Within a few searches I found everything about myself, so that was frightening.”

So, how much longer can a show about hiding yourself on the Internet last? What will happen when it becomes too hard to hide, or when new legal issues over assuming false personhood arises, or when our real-life selves are forcibly made to align with our Internet identities?

“I think it’s harder to be a catfish,” says Joseph. “It’s harder and harder for us to make the show, which is interesting. There will be a moment in time where we’ll look back at this Internet period and say, ‘I can’t believe that was legal then, there was this show called Catfish that explored the weird gray area of Internet fraud.’”


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