A lot can happen when you open an e-mail from a stranger. That's how every episode of the MTV docu-series Catfish: The TV Show begins: hosts Yaniv "Nev" Schulman and Max Joseph check their inbox and find a message from someone in a shaky online relationship, a virtual romance with a stranger who seems to be hiding something.
During the episode, the two help the e-mailer uncover the truth about their so-called catfish--someone who manufactures part of his or her online persona. The 2010 documentary that spawned the TV show featured Schulman, now 28, unearthing the heartbreaking truth about his own catfish (and hearing the seafood-related story that gave rise to the term).
So Schulman was surprised but not skeptical when, this past January, he opened a text message to learn that the much-discussed dead girlfriend of a college-football star--Notre Dame's Manti Te'o--hadn't really existed. Te'o, it seemed, had been catfished, and the sports world turned to MTV to understand how such a thing was even possible. "For most of America, we're making the Manti Te'o show," Schulman says. "They don't realize that he had a Catfish experience."
Though the first season of Catfish had been filmed prior to the Te'o revelation, viewership for the episode that aired after the news broke spiked 27% compared with the week before. When Catfish returns for its second season on June 25, it will feature the first investigations filmed after the show became a national touchstone, including "hopefuls"--the show would never call them victims--who are familiar with the phenomenon. Which raises a question: Now that catfishing is widely acknowledged, how does it still happen?
"We do sort of joke about it a lot," says Schulman. "How much longer can this show go on?"
The logistical answer, says executive producer Dave Sirulnick, is that the number of people asking for help is on the rise. He would know. MTV intercepts initial requests to ensure that the story fits their rubric and that neither party would be a disaster on camera. "There's a vetting process and a screening process," says Sirulnick. Then MTV makes arrangements so that Schulman and Joseph can hit the road immediately after reading an approved message.
Or maybe the answer goes deeper. "Mystery is the greatest aphrodisiac," Schulman says. Hopefuls tell him of the thrill of the chase, of gambling that their perfect mate might really exist. "The only way [catfishing] happens is if you have 50-50 participation," he notes. That goes for the show too: Catfish raised ethical hackles when it debuted, but Schulman points out that nobody has to do it. He believes hoaxers agree to appear on camera because it's a safe space; participants also receive stipends to cover lost wages.