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 Matters

I couldn’t find an article with a better title to kick off this first blog post.

Authenticity Matters” is an essay published in the Annals of Tourism Research in 2006*. It was written in response to another excellent article published in the same journal.

This article is a bit heavy on the scholarly theory. As the goal of this blog is to be accessible to everyone, I will not belabour or restate the many points of this article here. Rather, I will focus on the main take-away form this article from my perspective.

Take-Away
This article reinforces the position of previous articles: namely that the definition of authenticity (specifically objective authenticity) is in flux. Some researchers are saying that  this is problematic and therefore the term should stop being used. If there is not unanimous consensus on the definition of a word, if it continues to be used then someone is always using it wrong. Plus they argue (based on reasons stemming from philosophy) that it probably is not a valid concept anyway.

“Authenticity Matters” is an essay written in response to the above position. Hang on, it says, we cannot agree on a meaning; however that does not mean we should stop using the term objective authenticity. On the contrary, the discussions that arise while contemplating the term has value. Why shut those discussions down? Plus, people in industry (firms, customers, marketers) all use that word. So not discussing it will stifle our opportunity to shape what the word means beyond the scholarly realm**.

Applying the idea to 360da
So there is value in the term “objective authenticity”, and there is value in being part of the discourse shaping the meaning of the word. Authenticity, like most words in any living language, is subject to change based on how the majority of speakers use it. I acknowledge that it is problematic. I also acknowledge that I like discussing how problematic it is with other people. I like thinking that I might win them over to my definition and then my definition becomes the main one. Or maybe they will win me over and I will learn something. I acknowledge this does not seem like the best was to “do” science. But that is kind of how science is done.

Objective Authenticity is a cornerstone of 360da as per Wang’s killer 1999 article. We just have to use it carefully. That means when you are using it, explain what you mean.

An illustrative anecdote
I watch the TV show Catfish. I partly watch it because I like the hosts, Nev and Max and their interaction with each other. I love Max’s cynicism and Nev’s idealism. I also watch it because I have been with my husband since 1995, and therefore never internet dated, much less social-media dated. I watch with horror and delight.

On Catfish, people write in and request that Nev and Max bring them together with someone they have been dating (usually for years) who they have never met in person. All dates are over  Facebook, texting, the phone and other non-video technologies. The person writing in is thinking that the person they are dating is not what they seem (although they  hope they are what they seem).

Usually what happens is that the person who is evasive about meeting is not objectively authentic (although they may be authentic in other ways). Someone who is says they are playboy playmate online turns out not to be one. Boys turn out to be girls and so on. The climax of Catfish is the unmasking. Are you who you say you are? 

Not being the person you claim to be in your photos and bio is a deal breaker (romantically) on the show even if every other aspect of your relationship is authentic. For me, that is what objective authenticity is. On Catfish, as in marketing, lying about who you are is a dealbreaker.

(Objective) authenticity matters.

* Belhassen, Y., & Caton, K. (2006). Authenticity Matters. Annals of Tourism Research, 33(3), 853-856.

** I do not use the term “in the real world”. Why I don’t use that term will be explained in a blog post to come.