If you havent already watched Catfish, then you probably want to avoid this post as it will be full of spoilers. But since Im often one of the last people to see a new movie, I suspect most of you have seen it already. Catfish documents the growth of an online romance mediated by Facebook, email, text messages, and photographs. A young New York photographer, Nev, meets an 8 year old painting prodigy named Abby via Facebook, begins receiving paintings based on his photographs from her in the mail, and then develops a relationship with the rest of her family, including her mother Angela and her 19 year old sister Megan. He begins to fall in love with Megan through their phone and text conversations.
Nev and Megan, photoshopped together
Soon, however, he and his film-making friends discover not all is at it seems with this family. Recordings of songs that Megan claims to have performed for Nev turn out to be taken directly from YouTube. The gallery building Abby supposedly bought with proceeds from the sales of her paintings remains on the market and vacant, despite an elaborate series of Facebook photographs showing the in-progress renovations. Nev and his friends decide, therefore, to take a trip to Michigan, where Megan and her family live, to discover the truth.
What they find is the heart of the film. The horse ranch on which Megan supposedly lives is empty; postcards Nev sent remain in the mailbox. Angela looks nothing like her pictures, nor does her husband. Megan is nowhere to be found. Abby has no interest in paintings. Instead, all the characters in the love drama Nev has experienced for 9 months have been played by Angela, a middle-aged woman frustrated by the gap between her life and her dreams. She constructed 10-15 Facebook profiles to fabricate a social network for Megan, all of whom interacted with Nev in an effort to keep him interested. She modulated her voice on the phone on the different cell phones she carried to sound like Megan or Angela. When Nev finally confronts her about the deception, she comes clean and remarks that each of the characters she invented is like a fragment of herself.
Putting aside the claims and counter-claims about whether or not the documentary is real (I believe it is real), the movie does something that I have not encountered anywhere else. It turns social media into art. Not only are Google Maps, Facebook posts, and text messages used as visuals throughout the film, thus achieving a level of multi-media embeddedness on the screen, but Angelas creation and adaptation of multiple virtual characters is, as the filmmakers put it in the bonus interview, like a living novel or a soap opera responding to its audience of one: Nev. Angela creates the ultimate in individualized narrative fiction. While her work relies upon Nevs naivety and trust for its effects (and, of course, is both a pitiable and horrifying deceit), it remains a stunning creation for its intricacy, multiple characters, and choice of media.
Angela's portrait of Nev, done during their meeting
Catfish is thus a documentary that embeds social media in its telling as it profiles an artist working both in traditional media like oils and acrylics and in social media itself. That the consumer of the social art is, himself, deceived (and must be) by the lies of an emotionally troubled artist should not blind us to the nature of her creation. It goes beyond the malicious impersonation and trolling often engendered by the Internet. It filled an emotional need for two people (as Nev admits in interviews), drew on photographs, text, and paintings as its raw material, and assembled a complex, human-cenetered narrative. If thats not art, then what is?
Further Reading on Social Media Art