‘True Detective’ of the Web: ‘Catfish’ Creators Nev Schulman and Max Joseph on Solving the Mysteries of Online Love

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Dart through Times Square, where even the Hello Kitty plushies are knockoffs, into the Viacom building on Broadway and 45th, where even the security guards hassle you just because they can. Run smack-dab into Iggy Azalea, dripping with Moschino and contempt, as you enter the elevator. Walk past “ballsy” quotes from M.I.A. and Sid Vicious — an attempt to edge up the colorful MTV offices, where A$AP Rocky blares when you both enter and leave — and step into a conference room overlooking the Hudson River where a team of MTV publicists outnumber your interview subjects. You’re here to talk to Nev Schulman and Max Joseph, the co-stars and co-creators of the “docudrama” Catfish, which returns for its third season this week. It’s almost laugh-out-loud funny how much the real and the fabricated are at battle here within this single experience, an attempt to get to the heart of a TV show that examines what’s real and what’s fabricated in relationships that exist exclusively via digital means.

There’s a reason I wanted to speak to Schulman and Joseph IRL. Looking them both in the eye while discussing the masks we create for ourselves on the Internet further legitimizes something their series has already accomplished: demonstrating that the web isn’t only a romantic playground for the weirdos of the online world. The idea that only the socially inept and the physically inferior must turn to digital means to find love and sex is a concept that hasn’t been reflected in reality for perhaps a decade.

And yet, before Catfish premiered on MTV in 2012 and as a feature-length documentary in 2010, there was a quiet shame surrounding extreme cases of digital love — stuff like the Manti Te’o controversy, in which involved parties dropped those three magical words before meeting face to face (or, hell, even before FaceTiming.) With the premiere of Catfish: The TV Show came a full array of representations of this blind love: spanning sexual orientation, location, ethnicity, and age. Everyone has a reason for taking to the web to find and maintain love. They’re all remarkably different reasons, and none of them are just because the people in question are sad nerds in their mother’s basement.

Catfish creators Nev and Max have normalized this phenomenon. In person, they’re both affable yet firm, and you can tell each has spent thousands of hours hearing the other one speak. They barely react to the other’s jokes, like a married couple 40 years and three kids in. But they play off each other well, finishing each other’s sentences and cutting in when a subject change feels necessary. “The truth is, we’re both so comfortable being in uncomfortable situations at this point,” Joseph says later. “There’s no awkward conversation I can’t sit through pretty easily.”

This seems to be true because, immediately after I’ve grilled them about touchier subjects surrounding Catfish — implicit body-shaming, the question of whether the show is fabricated in any way, inadvertent “outing” of LGBT teens (“If we went in there with an ‘it gets better’ premeditated moral of the story, I think it would seem canned,” Max offers) — Nev and Max mark the end of our interview with hugs I certainly did not initiate.

Theirs is a line of work that requires hugging strangers, and lots of it. The concept behind the show — unmasking those who are less than honest online about their IRL identities, who are in romantic relationships but will evade meeting up or video-chatting because they are hiding their identity — is inherently emotive, and discovering you’ve been “catfished” is inevitably traumatic. (The term “catfish” was coined by Nev in the documentary film, and refers to the idea that online pretenders are bottom-feeders who keep everyone on their toes.)

The basic principle behind the show has remained the same from the start: catfishing, a game in which Nev and Max attempt to catch these frauds in their lies before traveling to the catfish’s home for the dramatic reveal. Still, the show is attempting to tune up other aspects of its production in Season 3. “We’re very critical of things we see and of ourselves,” Schulman says. “Going into Season 3, we looked at each other and spoke with our production team and said, ‘If we’re going to do this, it has to be different. It has to keep our interests.’ We have to be willing to sort of take on bigger, more complicated stories, and really take some risks. We definitely went after some bigger fish this season.”

“We’re always pretty surprised that people are willing to come on the show and unmask themselves in front of cameras and the MTV audience,” Schulman says, later adding that it has become “increasingly difficult” to make Catfish as its profile has increased. The show’s first season saw an average weekly viewership between 2 and 2.5 million, with the second season dropping down to between 1.5 and 2 million viewers, but the week after the Manti Te’o catfishing story broke, Catfish had its highest viewership ever, at over 2.7 million viewers. Big-name production company Relativity Media produces the show, as it did the Universal-distributed documentary after it was championed by the likes of blockbuster director Brett Ratner at Sundance 2010.

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BuE98oeL-e0]

This season includes an episode in which the catfish simply didn’t show up for a meeting with the duo — surprisingly, the first situation of its kind the guys have encountered while making the series (the episode will still air). Among those who do appear in its third season, there are those who require unconventional approaches, and as a whole, Season 3 goes for variety. There’s a catfish who enjoys sending Nev and Max on a wild goose chase, bringing them to places where the catfish was not. There are family members catfishing each other, celebrities hunting down super-fan stalkers, people posing as famous music producers, Instagram romance, scams resulting in the loss of tens of thousands of dollars.

“We also broke up the format in terms of how we went investigating,” Joseph says. “Sometimes we will spontaneously go to where the catfish is without alerting them first, sometimes we will surprise the catfish where they sleep. Sometimes Nev and I will split up, which even surprises the catfish themselves, who generally do watch the show, and are expecting the experience to be like every episode they’ve seen. In our minds, they’re pleasantly put back on their heels a little bit.”

You would think getting caught in a web of your own lies on national TV would be enough to put someone in their place, but if you watch Catfish with any frequency, the audacity of some of the catfish is astounding. There was the small butch lesbian from Season 2 — known simply as Dee Pimpin — who pretended to be rapper Bow Wow and whose exit strategy was to sweet-talk her online love into a different sexual preference. Then there was the vengeful enemy, Mhissy, who built up an online persona just to ruin her dupe Jasmine’s life via heartbreak. But any amount of cockiness exhibited by a catfish in any given episode is matched by extreme representations of poor self-esteem in another.

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bPiohLnA1kU]

Sometimes on the show, a chubby, awkward teen girl will pretend to be someone resembling a model. When the boy she’s been catfishing inevitably finds out that she is not a size 6 with a rack but rather, a size 16 with acne, the subtext surrounding the subsequent rejection is that the girl is not attractive enough to live up to the boy’s standards. “It’s not fair to the guy in that situation because they end up in this very tough spot, where basically they’ll look like a jerk if they say they’re not attracted to the person, and they’ll be betraying themselves if they go with it,” Max says, later adding, “We know that if the girl ended up being hotter than the girl in the pictures, they would think twice about it.”

I should have known this conversation would veer slightly into Jillian Michaels territory when Max looks me — an overweight person — in the eye and uses the phrase “she’s let herself go physically” to describe Cassandra, the catfish on the Season 3 premiere. If I were a less secure person, I would have experienced a twinge of the same inadvertent body-shaming as some of the female catfish on the show. I ask the guys if they feel uncomfortable constantly encountering self-hate from young women, being adult men and all. The subsequent conversation is fascinating, though not exactly PC at times.

Max: Sometimes we feel like we’re being too careful and too sensitive. Even talking about the subject, there are so many taboos where you can just get in trouble from what you say even if you didn’t mean to say it. There’s a fine line between self-acceptance and also pushing yourself to be better. A lot of the people we meet, whether they’re overweight or not overweight, are eating terribly. A lot of the reason is because it’s cheaper to eat a hamburger at McDonald’s, or chicken at KFC, than it is to eat an apple or a banana. And that’s something that we can’t really get into in an episode. It’s just bigger.

Nev: Something that I struggle with is, a lot of the people on the show — catfish and hopefuls — want a better life for themselves. And they’re oftentimes creating it via their Internet profiles. But they’re not willing to put in the work. They’re not willing to wake up in the morning and make a change, to actually do something, to take a small step every day towards being the person, or getting closer to the dream life, that they envisioned for themselves.

Max: They just kind of give up on themselves. They stop pushing themselves. It’s not about eating right, it’s not about going to the gym…

Nev: Or school…

Max: It’s not about school. It’s about, “I’m just gonna give up and just fake it.” The same kind of motivation as people who just wanna be insta-famous, but they don’t actually want to work at something to become famous. They just want all the perks of fame, but that’s one side of it. The other side is self-acceptance. A lot of people have been shamed into hating themselves. And they hate themselves so much that they can’t even bring themselves to be proactive about doing the right thing. It’s this balancing act talking to them about, on the one hand, promoting self-acceptance and saying, “You’re OK, you’re not a monster, you should not feel ashamed about who you are and what you look like.” On the other hand, if you’re not happy about these things, there are things you must do about it because it’s in your hands. But that’s a very delicate conversation to have. Getting people to understand the situation they’re in is very much directly related to how they feel about themselves…

Nev: And to show them that while they’ve spent the last six months or ten years going in this direction, with the energy that they’ve used, they could very easily be going in that direction.

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HptDSwgkR8g]

No one said these guys were therapists, and in speaking to them this candidly, it’s pretty clear they haven’t undergone any such formalized training. What they do isn’t therapy, per se, but it does mix investigative work with counseling and cheesing for the cameras.

“We’ve both been in therapy probably since we were 11, and we both sort of received hands-on therapy lessons from our therapists,” Schulman says, later adding, “I consciously decided not to study or read any specific guidebook. I didn’t want the way I related to people to be via some textbook suggestions from other people. I wanted to just relate to them in whatever way I could find that was a genuine connection to me.”

You gotta give them credit for being able to suck the complicated truth from liars and scammers. When the show airs, the process is edited into exhaustingly emotional five-minute packages, but in reality they say the process takes hours and hours. (Besides said editing, Nev and Max remain steadfast in their repudiation of claims that the show is fabricated and reverse-engineered, first casting the catfish and then looping in its hopeful; “We never do a second take,” Nev says.)

“Sometimes, they’re an iceberg,” Joseph says of his subjects. “Not using the Internet term ‘iceberg,’ but they’re trapped inside of this iceberg and when we first meet them you crack it really hard to get the crack going, and then as it kind of spreads, you warm them up. You don’t need to hit them any harder than you did.”

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PE4ThqIu2aU]

The two operate not unlike a detective duo, and we talk for a while about which one of them is the good cop and which one is the bad cop. I’ve always thought of Max as the warm and fuzzy one, while Nev is the guy who makes contact with the catfish and, in more trying cases, appeals to their moral compass through mild guilt. But there are times when Max is all tough love. Like any functioning team, they switch up roles as necessary, recognizing that there are few rules in what they do. Any that do exist, they probably made up themselves.

“We’re really operating in a gray area,” Joseph says. “I think that in the future they are going to regulate Internet identity theft and fraud. We will see this moment in time as the Wild West of the Internet, when people were just running wild pretending to be other people. We’ve had some episodes this season where the hopeful had gone to the police before coming to us, and the police basically told them that there’s nothing that they can do, this is not technically illegal, and that there’s no way to prosecute or press charges here. They come to us and they’re frustrated. For as much as we love doing what we do, we can’t be the Internet Identity Police forever. Internet culture is only going to evolve further and further, and we’re going to have to figure out how to deal with these problems.”

In one respect, Catfish remains one of the few mainstream holdovers of the “stranger danger” approach to web safety of the 1990s and early ’00s — something that’s been largely lost since social media emerged and demanded we willingly share our personal details. The power the Internet has over our lives, despite how mysterious it can still be in 2014, is enough to be downright depressed about, until you recognize that location is no longer the ultimate barrier in connecting with someone anymore.

This big-picture optimism is what Max focuses on when I ask him and Nev whether digital communication has helped or harmed modern love. “It’s not just about the girl at the bar,” Joseph says, “or the girl at the bank, or the girl at the supermarket, or a friend of a friend…”

“…Or depending on the state you live in, your second cousin,” Nev jokes, hinting at the cynicism he’s about to unleash when it’s his turn to speak.

“I think the Internet has made the understanding and willingness to commit and put in the hard work that it takes to be in love less appealing,” he continues. “People think, ‘Oh, I have so many people online that I can talk to. And the dating pool’s so big, if it doesn’t work out with this person after three weeks, fuck ‘em, I’ll just move on to one of these other people who liked my photo on Tinder.’ When in fact, you just blew it with the person that you could have been soul mates with because you didn’t feel like putting in the real work that it takes to be in a relationship.”

Let it sink in that this man has helped dozens of people across the country either find love or get closure on relationships throughout the last few years. When you see that much deception and pain made possible through digital means, I imagine it would be difficult not to feel numb or jaded about the Internet. But also keep in mind now, and when you watch the show, that Nev has gone through this himself in Catfish the movie. With his prickly charm and his bright smile, this tall, dark, and handsome 20-something is living this story, one stolen selfie at a time.