Alison Taylor on relationships: 'Beware the online catfish'


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A few years ago, I spent the whole of August fannying around with a guy I only met once, on a night out in Manchester. We vowed to meet again, but it never happened despite several attempts (his failure, not mine) and – worse – despite the fact we'd gotten into the habit of texting sometimes as often as 50 times a day. I know. I'm embarrassed and feel a little bilious just writing that. I christened him 'Fantasy Boy'.

Similarly, a colleague recently severed contact with a guy living on another continent with whom she'd been having an email 'relationship' for six months. She'd only met him once, too, but he'd "become part of her every day", as she put it. I could see the red flags when she told me about the ridiculously over-the-top ditties he'd pen her each day ('my love' this and 'darling' that), but she just saw romance. They met again when he was in the UK recently, but the reality didn't live up to its virtual counterpart. He gave her the runaround until safely back on his native shores – a short 12-hour flight away – when the emails started again. Thankfully she wised up, but it begs the question: is there a bit of the 'catfish' in all of us?

In case you missed it, Catfish was a film made by documentary maker Nev Schulman about his experiences with a woman he met on Facebook who turned out to be an entirely different person to the one he'd be having the 'relationship' with. Twentysomething 'Megan' was in fact fortysomething-and-married Angela with a personality disorder. Catfish is now a popular TV show on MTV – the second series just started – and I watch it and get those familiar bilious feelings again as the deceits unfold.

It's called Catfish because, in the documentary, Angela's husband Vince tells a story about how fishermen would put catfish in with cod shipments between Asia and North America to keep the cod active, and prevent the flesh going mushy. Vince implies that Angela is like those catfish because life would be "dull and boring if we didn't have someone nipping at our fins". DARK.

Catfish, the TV show, is extreme in terms of the deceits it uncovers – heck, it's MTV – but I can't help but feel that the behaviours are all too common: hiding behind a device, living a different persona, needing that online 'action'; somebody 'nipping at our fins'.

Now I'm not being a luddite here, I'm not. I've done internet dating, I'm on Twitter, and I love a bit of text flirting, but six months obsessively emailing somebody you don't actually know at all? Two years 'in a relationship' on Facebook having never met the person? It's madness. And what's driving it? Are we that lonely? Are we ruled by the dopamine high we get as soon as that message hits our inbox?

My advice: don't let a virtual hook-up go on too long before you turn that avatar into flesh and blood. Anything else is just catfish.