A few weeks ago, two different sets of friends within as many days recommended that I watch the movie “Catfish.” I had never heard of it, but the summary sounded intriguing, so I put it on the Netflix queue and watched it a few nights ago. I loved it, and if you haven’t seen this film yet, I highly encourage you to do so. Here’s the trailer:
It is difficult to discuss this film without giving too much away, but I will try to keep my comments vague enough so that I don’t ruin it for those who haven’t watched it yet. The film follows a relationship that develops between Nev, a 20-something photographer in New York, and various members of a family living in a small town in upper-peninsula Michigan. The filmmakers are Nev’s brother and friend, who all share an office.
The relationship begins when Nev receives an unsolicited painting in the mail that is a recreation of one of his published photographs. The note with the painting says that it was created by an eight-year-old girl, Abby, who Nev then friends on Facebook in order to thank her. Over time, more paintings arrive, and Nev becomes Facebook friends with more of Abby’s family, including a 19-year-old sister who begins to flirt with him. Their relationship begins to deepen after Nev talks with the older sister on the phone, and they soon develop an online romance through text messages and Facebook.
As you might expect (and as the summary and trailer reveal), Nev soon starts noticing things about this girl and her family that don’t quite add up, so he decides to go to Michigan unannounced to meet her. This is where the surprises start unfolding, and where I will end my summary so that you can watch it for yourself.
I don’t think it would give away too much to say that this film reminded me of a classic New Yorker cartoon by Peter Steiner, first published in 1993 (left). It shows two dogs, one typing away on a computer keyboard and saying to the other, “On the Internet, nobody knows you’re a dog.” It nicely captures the ways in which non-visual communication media allow users to play with their identities, projecting themselves online as something completely different from what they are in “real life.” When you interact with someone via Facebook who you have never actually met in person, there is little assurance that the other person is who he or she claims to be (after all, we all project an idealized version of ourselves online). In fact, there really is little assurance that the other is person is a actually a person, and not an autonomous computer program created to simulate human discourse (otherwise known as a “bot”).
I have yet to read reports of a “bot” posing as a Facebook user, but there are a few interesting historical examples of people having significant conversations with such programs. The most famous example is ELIZA, created by MIT’s Joseph Weizenbaum in the mid-1960s. ELIZA was programmed to emulate a psychotherapist, responding to a user’s textual input with questions designed to encourage the user to explicate and push deeper into whatever the user was discussing. For example, if a user typed “my mother is making me angry,” the program would respond with “tell me more about your mother,” which would encourage the user to reveal private details about the nature of the relationship. Some users were surprised and hurt to discover that ELIZA was simply a computer program, but even many of those who knew it was a program still interacted with it as if it was a psychotherapist, telling it their deepest and darkest secrets.
But all of this must be balanced with an interesting Pew research report that was published today. The researchers wanted to test some of the standard negative claims being made about social networking systems like Facebook. They designed a survey to investigate two related questions: “Do these technologies isolate people and truncate their relationships? Or are there benefits associated with being connected to others in this way?”
Interestingly, the study found that Internet users, and Facebook users in particular, were more likely to be politically engaged, have more close friendships, and receive more emotional and tangible support from their friends when in need. Obviously, as with any popular survey, some of this must be taken with a large grain of salt, but I was particularly impressed with the increased tangible support that Internet users tended to receive. Tangible support, such as bringing someone meals or giving them money, requires real sacrifice and risk, which is something that many technology critics think is absent, or even incapable, from online relationships.
The report also details the average composition of the respondent’s Facebook friend networks. Nearly 90% of the respondent’s Facebook friends were people they had met in-person more than once, 3% were people they had met only once, and only 7% were people they had never actually met in-person. Assuming that some of those 7% are famous artists, authors, or personalities that the respondents admire, these findings indicate that people are using Facebook predominantly to stay in-touch with people they already know offline, and not to meet new people online.
How do you use Facebook, and what sort of benefits have your experienced by being connected with people online as well as offline? Are you Facebook friends with people you have never actually met in-person? If so, how would each of you find the other different from your respective Facebook selves?