Catfish Row

Screenshot from the film “Catfish.”


Catfish: An online impostor posing as a romantic object. To deceive by posing in such a manner. See also the 2010 film of that name.

The continuing drama of the Notre Dame linebacker Manti Te’o and the woman who did or did not exist has provided one of the stranger distractions in contemporary campus life.

A quick recap: Manti Te’o did or did not believe that someone reportedly named Lennay Kekua was or was not his online girlfriend. Whether or not she existed, and if having existed she did or did not die, Te’o did or did not wish to misrepresent an event that had or had not taken place.

At least that much is clear.

If, as has been claimed, Mr Te’o was catfished, he was the object of a double deception in which a virtual presence posed first as the extension of someone real and then as a someone real who was in love with him. (Trawling for persons to victimize in such a way might perhaps be described as catphishing. To enter into digital matrimony with an allegedly real, allegedly female person might then be described inevitably as acquiring a phishwife.)

Star athletes, tragedies, and hoaxes are the stuff of which the American media’s dreams are made. Witness Lance Armstrong’s confession, if that was what it was. (Did Oprah fish for it or phish for it?)

But if in the case of Manti Te’o an imaginary friend proves to be at issue, this spectral inamorata should speak to every academic heart. For we scholars thrive on imaginary friends.

Think otherwise?

Consider peer reviewers, outside readers, grants advisors, or the secret regulators administering double-blind submission. Academics want their strengths and accomplishments recognized and judged – rigorously, of course, but with intellectual sympathy. No scholar doesn’t wish to be among friends, especially the anonymous, invisible ones. Imaginary friends? You decide.

Or consider how easily the verb “to friend” has rendered the form “to befriend” painfully archaic, even creepy. A decade of full-throttle friending on Facebook has naturalized a term whose underlying premise is simply that “to befriend” is now simply to engage in consensual digital relations.

Facebook friends range from the intimate to the professional, from the social to the remotely associative. There is Facebook friendship degree zero and there is the condition of six (or two) degrees of Facebook separation.

Tasked to produce a list of our friends, most of us would create a far more restricted list than the catalog of connections that form our Facebook-friends directory. Many of these people are friends in the sense that they heard your APA talk on De Amicitia at the plenary session and want to be in your orbit. That doesn’t make you amici optimi in perpetuum, as Cicero would have called his BFFs. A lot of us have Facebook friends we’ve never dined with, or spent time with, or spoken to, or seen, or even heard of.

Still, all are “real Facebook friends” because Facebook has defined the “friend” relationship in these terms. But let us admit there’s something imaginary about most of these amical (thank you, OED) relationships, no matter how many “likes” and “comments” they produce.

At a famous moment in Frankenstein, Boris Karloff’s Monster asks the film’s one-word question. “Friend?” Put yourself in the Monster’s boots for a moment. Who on line can easily respond to that question, or confidently read a response?

What may be imaginary may, of course, be as powerful as what is physically present. The  force with which friendship can be vectored across the playing field of the American academy is not something to be taken lightly. Nobody messes with Facebook.

Let the current visibility of catfishing serve as a reminder that academia is—like football, though slightly less well-paying—a brutal sport. What we academics do requires strength, endurance, cunning, and good interpretative skills. For higher ed is a business heavily invested in the not-always-congruent values of collegiality, anonymity, collectivity, and discrimination (the good kind).

Like everybody else, scholars today live in overlapping realities. Who can organize and contain all the elements of our social and intellectual lives? What about those frequent encounters with people who just may be other than as they present themselves to us?

“On the Internet,” reads a famous cartoon showing an animal at a desktop, “nobody knows that you’re a dog.” Or an anthropologist or the chair of radiology, for that matter. Caveat lector, scriptor, and canis, too. Nobody wants to be the main course at a catfish fry. Best practice: Keep your imaginary friends close, but your real friends closer.

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