Gone Fishing: Catfish 14

Early this week Universal Pictures invited RaceTalk to attend a private screening of the documentary “Catfish.” Given our extensive coverage of social media, and particularly Facebook, the studio felt we were the perfect viewers.

The film follows a young, New York City based photographer, Yaniv “Nev” Shulman as he forms relationships with a family in Michigan. After seeing one of Nev’s photographs in the New York Sun, this Michigan family sends him a painting of his photograph, done by their eight year old daughter Abby.

Nev winds up “friending” Abby’s mother, father, sister, brother and more via Facebook and communicates with them regularly. Over the coming months they share countless emails, Facebook messages, phone calls, photos, videos, song recordings, and of course, more paintings. Eventually, Nev begins to form a romantic bond with Abby’s older sister Megan. He talks to her every day on the phone, via text, email and she sends photos and recordings of her singing songs she wrote for him.

One evening Nev discovers via the power of Google and YouTube, that Megan has been sending music recordings that are in fact stolen from an artist named Amy Karney. When he confronts her about it, she becomes frazzled and overly emotional. From this conversation on, things with Megan and the entire family begin to unravel. In an attempt to get some closure on what now feels like a mountain of lies, Nev and the two film makers (his older brother Ariel and their friend Henry) decide to drive to Ipsheming, Michigan to meet the family in person and uncover the truth.

Without spoiling the ending, because if you are an active user of Facebook you must see this movie, I will say that “Catfish” caused me to rethink my personal approach to Facebook. As a PR professional, we counsel our clients on the use of social media and the real-time web, and encourage them to share, share often, and share with complete transparency. We position social media as an easy, low cost way to reach your target audience on the websites and applications they are already using. Personally, we do the same. We use our Facebook profiles to share photos, videos, articles we enjoy, blog posts we write and more. Facebook has become so ubiquitous; we behave this way without question.

In David Kirkpatrick’s book “The Facebook Effect” he chronicles the early days of Facebook when a user was required to have a college, .edu email address to join. Mark Zuckerberg felt the university email address provided a level of authenticity that you are who you say you are. Once Facebook was opened broadly, and that requirement disappeared, you could use any email address to sign up, even a fake one.

“Catfish” demonstrates that the internet and in this case Facebook, allows users to not only share content, but to also steal content; to poach photos, videos, music and more and re-purpose it for their own use. The current explosion of content on the internet and social networks provides users with the ability to pluck content off the web and create an entire identity with stolen information.

Nev is still an active user of Facebook. His experiences have not diminished his use of the network. However, “Catfish” will force you to re-think the way you use Facebook and exactly how open you want to be with your personal information and the people you allow into your network. This film is a haunting, brutally real look at the power of social media.

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