Why does catfishing make some people feel good?

A recent (2014) paper by Leonard Reinecke and Sabine Trapte in the journal Computers in Human Behaviour indicates that authentic, positive social network interaction can enhance well-being offline. Their article “Authenticity and well-being on social network sites: A two-wave longitudinal study on the effects of online authenticity and the positivity bias in SNS communication” has a few key findings on authenticity and social media engagement that are hard to ignore.

The Take Aways
First, this paper consolidates previous studies about individual contributions to social networks. The research indicates that positive messages in social media generate more engagement than neutral or negative messages. This positive bias encourages people to post positive messages (rather than negative) on these networks.

Second, when authentically positive messages are posted and social engagement occurs (usually positive in response), it has the effective of increasing the wellbeing of the person who posts the comment. So this means someone who is already feeling positive, then posts something positive, gets lots of engagement from their online friends, and then (offline) feeling more positive.

Third, people who did not have high levels of well being, regardless of how much engagement their post generates and how (inauthentically positive) it may be, do not get an increase in well-being form their social media interaction.

So basically, authentic online positive social media interactions increase well-being.

How this relates to catfishing
A catfish is someone who uses a false identity on the internet, usually in a romantic context. If the TV show Catfish is anything to go by, then most catfishers are people who are not happy in their own lives.

Many of the catchers claim that the only part of the relationship that was inauthentic was their identity (Objective and Commercial Authenticity). They claim the core of their interaction (Cultural and Existential Authenticity) was authentic. Applying this study, we can infer that when the catfisher is engaging the catifshee in discussions about their (positive) feelings that the interaction generates offline well-being for the catfisher.

So, even though they are pretending to be someone else, catfishers are gaining genuine greater well being from positive interactions as their assumed identity.

So are catfishing relationships authentic? If they generate authentic feelings on both sides, isn’t there something real going on?

The answer to that question is yes and no. If you use the 360 Degree Authenticity analysis, the catfishers will likely have some authenticity (Constructive, Existential) but not other kinds (Objective, Commercial). As the 360 degree model treats authenticity as a holistic measure, without having all the kinds of authenticity in place, one is not authentic from every angle.

And before getting all judgy about online catfishers, I have personally been witness to many an offline relationship where Objective authenticity was in play, but Existential authenticity was absent. Just because you say who you really are, doesn’t men both people are authentically invested in the relationship whether you are online or offline. If you want evidence of that, just watch one of my other favourite (MTV) reality shows: Teen Mom 3.

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Authenticity does not matter to everyone (for everything)

This blog started with a post titled “Authenticity Matters“. I would love to tell you that authenticity matters to everyone all the time. About everything. But that cannot possibly be the case, and a 2009 study by Shuling Liao and Yu-Yi Ma entitled “Conceptualising Consumer Need for Product Authenticity” in the International Journal of Business and Information does a great job of demonstrating this.

Take Aways
First, this paper demonstrates that authenticity matters to some people about some products in some situations. But it does not matter to everyone all the time.

Second, if authenticity matters to you about something (for example, eating authentic Japanese food), you will go out of your way and invest time in finding an authentic product experience. You will then be more likely to repeat purchase the product and you will also be more likely to recommend the product. You are more invested in the experience and, in extreme circumstances, you can start to identify so strongly with the product experience that it becomes part of your identity. For example, you might start to look down on people who eat what you consider inauthentic Japanese food. Or you may begin to feel a connection to other people who patronise that restaurant.

If you are not invested in the authenticity of your Japanese food, you’ll eat it anywhere and may not be particularly attached to any one place. You are also more likely to have your consumption habits driven by price rather than quality.

This is important for marketers as it is another way we can segment, and appeal to, customers: authenticity-driven vs not authenticity-driven. Moreover it explains why some people are so into something and some people aren’t–and their subsequent behaviour.

Third, this study was completed in Asia, likely in Taiwan. Although the Taiwanese can be western in their approach to consumption in some circumstances, that is not always the case. The Western attitude toward authenticity is said to have emerged from particular cultural events shaping the Western world view. Although Eastern cultures may have had different events, their take on authenticity appears to be very similar to the Western view.

360da
In addition to the above, the study looks at 6 different properties of authenticity, with each property having several dimensions. Some of the properties, and their dimensions, fit in the 360da framework as follows. The italicised concepts are from the article; the bold is form the 360da framework.

Originality (original, from a place known for the product, pioneer/innovator, cannot be imitated, made from natural materials) [360da: Objective Authenticity]

Quality. Commitment and Credibility (quality guarantee, robust quality, honesty, meets expectations) [360da: Commercial Authenticity]

Heritage and Style (consistent features, embodies tradition) [360da: Constructive Authenticity]

Sacredness (high levels of personal identification, high levels of personal involvement, nostalgic quality) [360da: Existential Authenticity]

Some of the properties apply to some products and not others and are therefore not general enough to fit into 360da:

Scarceness (hard to find, scarce)

Purity (not mixed with other materials, focused on one thing)

This article is available free on the internet, and although it only one article and a small sample size, it is demonstrating something really interesting and important to those of us in the authenticity business. If you have a chance to read it, I recommend it.