Sophie Peachey, Final Year Student, Politics and International Relations BSc, University of Bristol
This essay looks at the interconnection between secrecy and visualities, using the concept of ‘Catfishing’ to illustrate how images are inextricably linked to identity through the ocularcentrism of attraction, especially in cyberspace, and therefore can be used as the ultimate tool of deception. A catfish is “a person who sets up a false profile on a social networking site for fraudulent or deceptive purposes” (Lovelock 2017: 205). Bok has defined keeping a secret as ‘to block information about it or evidence of it from reaching that person, and to do so intentionally’ (Bok 1989, quoted in Vermeir 2012: 169). Catfishing through false imagery is therefore an example of secrecy, as the perpetrators real identity is being purposely withheld from the victim. Visualities relate to the construction of imagery as a sociocultural experience, which renders visuality as more than just observing, but seeing things through the context in which they exist and how they hold political meaning (Knochel 2013: 16). Images used on online profiles act as filters that dictate how we are seen, influencing our opinions and informing others of our constructed identities (Knochel 2013: 22). The visual world appears as a robust truth-teller, especially in comparison to other sensory methods of receiving information; words can easily be fictitious and shrouded in secrecy, but you are inclined to believe what you see with your own eyes. Bar tricks of the light and visual disturbances, humans tend to accept as fact what they see before them. Catfishing relates to an inauthentic sense of self, a false identity, deception, and issues with self-esteem. This essay uses the seminal works of Erving Goffman in secrecy studies to understand how visualities and secrecy are interconnected via the concept of catfishing, looking at his theories of barriers to perception and his social performance framework described in The Presentation of Self In Everyday Life (Goffman 1959, quoted in Fallers 1962: 190). Performativity in identities and the act of passing will be explored in their similarities and differences to catfishing, highlighting how identity online and offline can be altered through visual discrepancies. This essay, however, makes a distinction between altering one’s appearance for societal conformity (i.e. passing), versus the manipulation of online profile images that often have malintent. The play between front and back stage is highlighted, looking at the role of visualities and imagery in constructing believable online identities. The operative word in the definition of a catfish is that of ‘deception’; catfishes go beyond theories of performativity and passing in that the ultimate goal is fraudulence and duplicity.
Catfishing and visualities
Catfishing ties into the politics of cyberspace and conceptions of authenticity and deception. The identities that we present online not only relate to imagery, but also to our education, class, reputation and personalities. However, why is it that the visual aspect of the profile is of the most importance? In a catfishing situation, even if all of the information about the person turns out to be true, why do we still feel deceived and disgusted? This essay believes that this is due to the fact that our ocular perception of someone is more important than other sensory understandings, as our vision is the one thing we are supposed to blindly trust. We are, therefore, betrayed by the visual deception, and perhaps more upset than we would be if they had lied about, for example, the university they attended, as words are something that can be fabricated more easily.
To many, technological developments provide almost transcendent erotic opportunities to play with self-representation, fluidity and anonymity. Identity floats in cyberspace without the mooring of flesh and bones, and an identity can be as close or far from the truth as you have imagination to create (Donath 1995: 1). This example of performativity, however, can only be conceived as a non-deceptive act when other users are also in on the situation. This may happen, for example, in a particular forum created for that purpose. This fluidity becomes deceptive when the victim is under the absolute assumption that the person they are speaking to looks like the person they purport to be through their images. As Donath points out, “[Users] do not enjoy finding out that the beautiful girl they had been flirting with is really a man, or that the expert advisor is still a junior in high school” (Donath 2014, quoted in Kottemann 2015: 52). Catfishing may take the form of constructing an identity that is completely removed from one’s own, or the editing of imagery to present a more idealised version of the real person. This usually relates to issues of self-esteem, and an attempt to adhere to Eurocentric, heteronormative ideals of beauty and attraction (Ranzini and Lutz 2016: 81). Catfishing is built upon image manipulation and self-surveillance, which allows tampering with authenticity and visual secrecy. The ocularcentrism by which we understand who someone is – the visuality, the corporeality, the physical body – informs our perception and is hugely important in the construction of online identities. An online perception is predicated almost entirely on the imagery; it is what allows us to imagine the person and manifest them as a real individual in our minds. The internet provides those looking to change with an unprecedented opportunity to shroud their real selves in secrecy, erasing the temporal aspect of relationships and making space for constructed and fictitious identities that play into ideas of acceptable and desired physical features (Kozma 2017: 469). A show like ‘Catfish’ on MTV shows us that the catfishes’ fears do in fact become realised, when they are largely rejected on the basis of their real appearances (Lyons 2020).
Goffman’s barriers to perception
Goffman’s ‘barriers to perception’ can be used as a conceptual framework to understand some of the ways in which secrecy may be concealed by the visual trick of catfishing (Goffman 1959 quoted in Gibson 2014: 295). Goffman denotes six barriers, of which two seem particularly pertinent to this concept. One barrier is that of asking, or lack thereof; this dictates the lack of leading questions asked, which then leads to a secret being maintained (Gibson 2014: 296). This can be seen through catfishing, whereby the visual stimulus is so convincing that the victim does not think to question its validity, and therefore does not ask penetrative questions that would lead to the leaking of information relating to the fake identity. Victims of catfishing may also choose not to ask questions, as even though they may harbour suspicions, they act with self-interest as they do not want to know the answer and therefore act upon such information. Another barrier that is defined by Goffman is that of believing, which is when someone chooses not to believe the secret that has been revealed to them (Gibson 2014: 298). This is very prevalent on the show catfish, when people have revealed their false identities, yet the victim chooses to believe that they are lying (Catfish. 2012). This is due to an irreconcilability with the ‘web of belief’ (Quine and Ullian 1978 quoted in Gibson 2014: 298) that has been spun by the perpetrator, and the fear that acknowledging the truth would paint the victim in a bad light and also perhaps tarnish them with a brush of complicity. The act of complicity coheres around the catfish and the victim playing equal parts in the deception, as the catfish uses visual imagery to fabricate a system of false belief, which the victim then chooses to trust in without “investigat[ing] the “truthfulness” of the profile’ (Kottemann 2015: 71).
Performativity, passing and Goffman
Goffman’s The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life (Goffman 1959: 238) follows a Shakespearean ‘All the world’s a stage’ line of reasoning and argues that every social establishment is made from a group of performers who manage the play between front and back stage (Poets.org. 2020). The actors restrict access to backstage whilst presenting a performance to the audience. The concept of performativity dictates that our identities are merely how we choose to present ourselves; ‘a process that is mutable and changeable’ (Kaplan 2007: 126). This has been transposed into an online setting by several scholars, who see theatrical similarities in users managing the dichotomy between their online and offline selves, what they have presented as the truth versus what is false, and their corporeality versus the optical identity they foster through the screen (Lovelock 2017: 205). Online users are performers in social cyberspace in which they manufacture a self and play with fictitious authenticity for reasons of self-interest (Ranzini and Lutz 2016: 83). This essay argues that, whilst similar in concept, catfishing surpasses performativity and passing in its levels of secrecy and holds fraudulent intent, which is facilitated through similar visual aids. Performativity relates to subtle iterations in presentation and an overall identity impression that may be different to who you are. It is somewhat similar to the practice of ‘passing’, which means performing an identity to cover a real identity that is often shunned by society, such as an intersex or transgender person, or even someone who claims to be younger than they are (Kanuha 1999: 28). Why is this then different to catfishing, if the evidence supports the fact that many people catfish due to the shame surrounding their class, race or weight? Perhaps the operative difference is the ocularcentric nature of catfish deception; by using fake photos, the perpetrators falsify their entire identity, usually for more sinister purposes. The art of passing or performativity instead relates to locating self-identity and finding positions in oppressive social systems (Georgiou 2017: 94). A transgender person does not aim to trick or deceive, but to pass under the radar and not draw attention to themselves in a world that has seen, for example, the systematic murdering of trans people. As can be seen in the MTV shows Catfish, it is often not the purpose of a catfish to play with the limits to their identity, or to barter with performativity; it is to lie and extort, which they do through tempting visual imagery (Catfish, 2012).
To conclude, secrecy and visualities are interconnected in that manipulated imagery can be used to conceal identities and deceive people in online environments. This essay has drawn comparisons between the performative nature of identity and the act of passing in its similarities to catfishing. A line has been drawn, however, as passing and performativity are often in search of social acceptance, whereas catfishing is often used for more fraudulent purposes. There are links, however, between catfishing and a desire for emotional connection and an adherence to normative standards of beauty (Kozma 2017: 469). Goffman’s works allow for a conceptual framework to be applied to our understanding of secrecy and barriers to our perception of deceptive behaviour, which plays a large part in the world of catfishing as the victims often fail to ask penetrative questions or choose not to acknowledge that they are part of/believed in a web of lies. Visualities are important in secrecy studies, as in a world of multisensory interactions, our sense of vision is something we tend to inherently trust. By discovering that what you see before your eyes is a lie, secrecy and visualities become inherently linked in the world of social media. The practice of catfishing also makes commentary on our perceptions of beauty in the Western world, and how the advent of the internet has allowed people to construct new identities for reasons of self-esteem that tie into feeling as though they do not conform to what is ‘desirable’ and ‘attractive’.
‘Catfish’. (2012). Directed by A. Shulman, N. Shulman and M. Joseph. MTV: Catfish Picture Company Relativity Media.
Donath, J. (1995). ‘Identity and Deception in the Virtual Community’, pp. 1-19.
Donath, J. (2014). ‘The Social Machine: Designs for Living Online’. Cambridge: MIT, 2014. Print.
Fallers, L. (1962). ‘The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life’. Goffman, E. American Anthropologist, 64(1), pp.190-191.
Georgiou, M. (2017). ‘Identity’. In Ouellette L. & Gray J. (Eds.), Keywords for Media Studies (pp. 94-98). New York: NYU Press. Retrieved June 8, 2020, from http://www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctt1gk08zz.32
Gibson, D. (2014). ‘Enduring Illusions: The Social Organization of Secrecy and Deception’. Sociological Theory, 32(4), 283-306. Retrieved June 8, 2020, from www.jstor.org/stable/43186679
Goffman, E. (1959). ‘The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life’. New York: Double
Kanuha, V. K. (1999) ‘The Social Process of ‘passing’ to Manage Stigma: Acts of Internalized Oppression or Acts of Resistance?,’ Journal of sociology and social welfare, 26, pp. 27–46.
Kaplan, C. (2007). ‘Identity’. In Burgett B. & Hendler G. (Eds.), Keywords for American Cultural Studies (pp. 123-127). NYU Press. Retrieved June 8, 2020, from www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctt9qfg90.36
Knochel, A. (2013). ‘Assembling Visuality: Social Media, Everyday Imaging, and Critical Thinking in Digital Visual Culture’. Visual Arts Research, 39(2), p.13.
Kottemann, K. (2015). ‘The Rhetoric Of Deliberate Deception: What Catfishing Can Teach Us’. Dissertation, Doctor Of Philosophy. University of Louisiana at Lafayette, pp. 1-175
Kozma, A. (2017). ‘Shame, Class, and Embodiment in the Catfish Universe’. Television & New Media, 19(5), pp.467-485.
Lovelock, M. (2017). ‘Catching a Catfish: Constructing the “Good” Social Media User in Reality Television’. Television & New Media, 18(3), pp.203-217.
Lyons, M. (2020). ‘MTV’S Catfish Is The Embodiment Of American Shame’. [online] Vulture. Available at: <https://www.vulture.com/2013/10/catfish-the-embodiment-of-american-shame.html> [Accessed 8 June 2020].
Poets.org. (2020). As You Like It, Act II, Scene VII [All The World’s A Stage] By William Shakespeare – Poems | Poets.Org. [online] Available at: <https://poets.org/poem/you-it-act-ii-scene-vii-all-worlds-stage> [Accessed 8 June 2020].
Ranzini, G. and Lutz, C. (2016). ‘Love at first swipe? Explaining Tinder self-presentation and motives’. Mobile Media & Communication, 5(1), pp.80-101.
Vermeir, K. (2012). ‘Openness versus secrecy? Historical and historiographical remarks’. The British Journal for the History of Science, 45(2), pp.165-188.