Catfish hunters

Manti Te'o saga offers glimpse of seamier side of the Internet

At best, Manti Te’o is a hopelessly new-fashioned romantic – unbelievably easily taken in by a supposed Internet suitor who apparently never even existed.

 

At worst, the Notre Dame linebacker-superstar was a knowing participant in an elaborate and cynical hoax on a trusting public, garnering sympathy and publicity for himself from coast to coast for having lost an “online” girlfriend to leukemia, coincidentally the same day his very real grandmother died last year.

The muddy truth may also be somewhere in-between.

The bizarre mystery tied the sports world in knots late this week, even overshadowing Lance Armstrong’s tepid mea culpa for being a world-class cheat.

Most of us wondered: How could Te’o have not known that his alleged Internet girlfriend, known as Lennay Kekua, didn’t even exist? How could he have considered someone he never met to be the “love of his life” as he put it? Why did he continue to pretend she was real even after learning she was not? Who did this and why?

We figure the truth will come out. Regardless, this whole episode is a peek into the deep and turbid waters of an Internet muck most of us would never step foot in. It’s an opaque, swirling world in which professed deep “relationships” and “romances” are breezily formed with virtual strangers – literally – and where trust and disbelief are suspended in a murky mix of loneliness, lust and longing.

There’s even a hit show on cable network MTV that puts a spotlight on that world. Called Catfish – a term the show’s creators were inspired to coin for the shadowy perpetrators of fake online identities – the show tells the stories of the pitiable souls who, as Te’o claims to be, are taken in by the fake flames of the tangled web. In one episode, a young woman is certain she’s about to meet her betrothed for the first time – and it turns out to be another young woman who was masquerading online as a male-model Romeo.

How lonely must some lives be, how galactically naïve these people must be, to fall prey to such callous hoaxes. How heartless and thoughtless must the unfeeling perpetrators be. How easy to forget there’s a human being on the other end of a keyboard.

In some ways, this is worse than the financial scammers out there; they’re only after our money. The catfish are breaking hearts and crushing spirits.

Perhaps this is the brave new world of courtship. A New York Times story documents that many 20-somethings today don’t date so much as hook up – loosely inviting each other to be at the same public place at a fairly indeterminate time. If an evening, or relationship, develops, so be it!

You have to wonder whether social skills can long last, and whether the phones are now smarter than us.

 

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