Don’t Talk to Strangers

How many of you have used an online dating service such as Match, eHarmony or OKCupid and met someone? Did the online relationship correspond to the real thing?

How many of you use Facebook, Tumblr, Twitter or any number of social networking outlets to interact, “friend,” or “follow” people you don’t really know in real life? Have you met them and found things strange or off?

Well, for those of us who met people via online dating and found the real life person to be lying or met a Twitter-friend and realized you have nothing really in common, there’s nothing surprising about the film Catfish.

The film, purported to be a documentary, tells the tale of New Yorker Nev and his relationship with a family in upper Michigan. Nev shares an office with his brother Rel and Henry. The latter two are filmmakers who shoot videos of dancers. The story unfolds as Nev, who is a photographer, receiving a package containing an amazing painting of one of his photos supposedly by a little girl named Abby. Nev and Abby start having email conversations which, as you might expect, involve Abby’s mother Angela. Soon, Nev becomes Facebook friends with the two of them and also the extended family.

When Abby’s older sister, Megan, enters the picture things get really interesting. Over an extended period of time, Megan and Nev start building a friendship via email, Facebook, text messages and even talking on the phone. The movie features many of these messages and its apparent the two are becoming more than just friends, intimate in a lot of ways, even though they have never met. It’s sweet watching Nev interact with Megan on the phone or via text messaging. He is really falling for this girl.

Unfortunately, as soon as Nev realizes Abby has been lying about her music he starts questioning everything. The little film about Nev and his unbelievably cute long distance relationship turns into an 60 Minutes-level expose. The three then pay a visit to the sleepy little Michigan town and learn the truth.

The massive twist SPOILERS BE HERE is that Angela has created all of the personalities. She constructed an incredibly complicated and well-crafted lie. Abby exists, but she’s more precocious than painter. Megan exists, but she’s no longer a part of the family. Megan’s Facebook photos are from model/photographer Aimee Gonzales. Abby has created this entire fantasy likley to escape from her borderline mentally ill husband and two definitely mentally ill step sons.

There’s plenty of controversy regarding how much of this film is a real documentary and how much of it was “recreated” or scripted. I honestly don’t know the answer. Probably a little of both. Whether or not it’s totally real or not makes no difference. The ability for people to create false identities online is embarassingly simple and the use of older or false pictures to represent oneself or a created persona is as old as online dating. It is a cautionary tale regarding social media and people need to be better informed of the dangers. Still, the most interesting part for me isn’t the twist at the end but watching Nev fall into the trap of a fake online relationship.

I had a similar interaction with a real girl from Boise whom I never met, but we exchanged photos, sent emails and IMs and talked on the phone. I completely identified with Nev because he was getting all the things I got in my personal online relationship: attention, flattery, hot pictures, late night phone calls, sexy IM chats, the works.

Once she started asking for money I knew it to be a fake relationship and I was the rube. It became my own personal cautionary tale regarding chat rooms and instant messaging, but even as the technology has advanced far beyond instant messaging to Facebook, Tumblr and Twitter the real danger of online relationships still exists when it spills out from virtual to real.

So, is it dangerous to be using social media? I would say it depends on how you use the “social” part of social media.

Social media to me means Google Reader. Google Reader is a web-based aggregator of RSS (real simple syndication) feeds. RSS feeds are a family of web formats used to publish frequently updated works—such as blog entries, news headlines, audio, and video—in a standardized format. Google Reader is the best at taking these feeds and putting them into an arrangement for effortless reading in one central location.

Currently, I have more than 100 RSS feeds in my Google Reader. Over the years, I’ve had more and I’ve had less. The interesting thing here is I’m not counting three personal feeds I’ve incorporated: my Twitter followers’ tweets, my Facebook friends’ status updates and my Facebook friends’ links. Yes, I’ve been experimenting with using my feed reader as an aggregator for just about anything that can generate an RSS feed.

A good portion of my feeds come from fellow Tumblr users. If you’ve never heard of Tumblr, think of it as a more expansive Twitter stream. It allows users to post text, images, videos, links, quotes and audio to their tumblelog, which is basically a short-form blog. With Twitter you can post links to all of that content, but Tumblr allows you to post the actual content. One of the cool things about Tumblr is being able to follow people and see their posts on your user interface dashboard. It is just like having people you follow in your Twitter stream. However, if you follow even a few fellow Tumblr blogs it becomes a tedious job to go through the dashboard and review them. I moved them all over to Google Reader and now it’s painless to manage.

Since everybody’s got only a 140 characters, it is still relatively easy to scan my Twitter stream online through my Twitter page or by using any of the multitudes of third party apps such as Tweetie or Tweetdeck to see what everyone has posted. As with everything else though, I’m experimenting with the idea of viewing my Twitter stream via Google Reader only.

With both Tumblr and Twitter, I follow a lot of people I’ve never met or know personally. Tumblr actually attempts to cultivate a sense of community while Twitter, for me, is still primarily a source of news and pushes toward interesting topics, articles and fun. With Twitter you can directly connect with others via the @ replies and have quick conversations via direct messaging. You can do that similarly with Tumblr, but I never really embraced it. I use Tumblr to primarily post fun, cool and interesting things I find on the internet. It’s a scrapbook of whatever I thought was worthy to post or repost at the time and I don’t follow any rhyme or reason. Others use Twitter and Tumblr in their own way creating niche accounts or as a supplement to a bigger website.

Unlike Twitter and Tumblr, I decided my Facebook friends would only be for people who I know or knew. If I don’t know them, I rarely add them to my Facebook friends no matter how many of my other Facebook friends were friends with them. Basically, if I never met them in real life I deleted them. Although there are a couple of exceptions.  I’ve culled my Facebook friends down to around 200 by removing profiles of people I really don’t know. Some people like having a ton of friends on Facebook. More power to you. Mostly, I use it to communicate and catch up on what my past and present friends are up to. With Google Reader, I can now do it without having to ever log into Facebook. I can scan all of my friends’ status updates and links quickly through the Google Reader interface. If something catches my eye, I can click directly on the link and add my two cents via a comment or use the ubiquitous “Like” feature on Facebook.

Through Google Reader, I can skim my Twitter and Tumblr stream and my Facebook friends’ status update and separate links stream without ever logging into Twitter, Tumblr or Facebook. Basically, I’ve made Google Reader my Master Control Program for pretty much everything I do online. I can do this with nearly all of the social media platforms out there from YouTube to Ping.

My social media interactions are primarily through Google Reader even though I go through Facebook and Twitter probably everyday. I know the difference between my “real” friends and those who I really don’t know, but interact with on a reguar basis.

The easy familiarity people have with social media tools can bring a false sense of reality. I don’t really know comic book artist Rob Liefeld, but we’ve had a few exchanges on Twitter. My friends on Facebook are my friends from yesterday and today. If I did know you way back when and want to know more about you and yours, I’ll probably look you up on Facebook.

Adding new friends to Facebook, whom I’ve never met, rarely happens. If Nev would have done that he would have never had his heart broken or made a multi-million dollar film. All things considered, I’d rather keep my social media a little less social.