During one, long confusing summer I signed up to Habbo Hotel, pretended to be a boy called Matt and fell in love – here’s why
Sometimes, our identities alone can prohibit us from fulfilling our desires. Contrary to popular belief, the desire to deceive others on the internet sometimes starts with an innocent rather than a sinister intention. I say that largely because it’s true, but also to save some face. Long before I came out as a lesbian, I catfished. It started when I was 10, long before I came to terms with my lesbianism. Back then, pretending to be someone else on the internet felt like the only way to be who I really was. I went to a religious school in a homophobic town, and I had a feeling from an early age that I liked girls. I’d pray to God to make me like boys. In a world where lesbians were depicted as the angry outsiders of society, and were always the first to be voted out of Big Brother, I was terrified when I thought I might be one. I’ve wanted to kiss girls for as long as I can remember, but I didn’t want short hair, I didn’t want to be angry and I didn’t want the world to look at me like they did those Russian girls in the “All The Things She Said” video. I wanted to be with girls, but my body and my shame prohibited it.
In the summer before I started secondary school, I signed up to Habbo Hotel. Like any MUD (multi-user domain), which were at their most popular from the early to mid 2000s, Habbo Hotel allowed me to choose my own identity and body. I became my my fantasised self, the one who could pass through the world and love girls without reproach. I was then blonde, spikey-haired, sensitive ‘Matt’. My body was no longer speaking for me. Through the words I typed, I could construct a narrative online that I couldn’t play out offline. I didn’t care to know who was behind the screen, and I didn’t want to think of these 2D characters as avatars for people with 3D faces and 3D lives. We were all there, roaming in our rooms, pixel-dancing on the dancefloor, enacting our own personal and impossible fantasies. Habbo gave us pixels, we moulded our ideal bodies out of them and explored the nascent desires within us. It was consensual deception.
I hadn’t really thought about this time in my life until I read the story of Ryan Schultz about a fortnight ago. Ryan was a somewhat well-known baseball writer, he dated women on Twitter, and Ryan wasn’t actually Ryan at all. For eight years, Ryan Schultz existed as an online presence and Becca Schultz was behind it all. She logged on as Ryan for the first time at 13, wanting only to use his name as a byline. Becca was right – her identity as a teenage girl would have prevented her from being taken seriously. The original intent was innocent, admirable even. Becca was only following the thousand-year-long tradition of using a male alias to publish her work. But Becca isn’t George Eliot, and things quickly became sinister. As Ryan, Becca fell in love, and after a series of tempestuous relationships with women, Ryan got his first big character development. He became abusive, manipulative, a drunk – and he forced women on the internet to send him nudes. Dark.
There have been no records to suggest that Becca enacted similar behaviour offline. Maybe it was the thrill of anonymity, or maybe it was the intoxicating lack of reticence; what cyber-psychologist John Suler calls the ‘online disinhibition effect’. “In Becca’s case,” professor and researcher of catfishing, Dr. Kathrin Kottemann tells me, “she realised a dream and then descended into a nightmare”. Consulting Kathrin over email, I ask how this young woman could act with the creepiness of a sleazy man on the internet. “This probably stems from Becca’s own feelings of powerlessness”, she replies. “If she can’t be what she wants to be as herself, she channels that insecurity and hopelessness into her persona and treats women the way she knows she would be treated if her identity were revealed”.
“If she can’t be what she wants to be as herself, she channels that insecurity and hopelessness into her persona” – Dr. Kathrin Kottemann
I can’t help but compare myself to Becca, and sympathise what I imagine may have been her original intent, however fucked up things got. For those who don’t hold positions of power, or whose bodies don’t automatically entitle them to privilege – of course the online world is preferable. When we pass through the world of space and faces, our power and identity is negotiated for us. In a new social situation, we are judged by the other person within seconds, before we even have the chance to introduce ourselves. "What I’ve found in my research is that catfish frequently adopt an online persona that is ‘enhanced’ in some way”, Kathrin tells me, “someone with a better job or someone who is better looking or someone who is the gender or sexuality that the real world person wishes they could openly be”.
What’s so terrifying about catfishing and getting to be your ideal self is that when you do it, you not only deceive the other person, you deceive yourself. Scarier still, is the lack of safety you feel on the internet because of people like Becca and me. The abuse Becca caused others is unforgivable, even if I think her story, or the origin of it, is understandable. My ‘Matt’ was an arbitrary character; abuse and manipulation just weren’t in his storyboard – but it was the character, not me who was in control.
Becca is a year younger than me, we’re both digital natives, and I imagine that she would have played an MUD like Habbo Hotel, too. If you were born in the mid-90s, it’s very likely that you did. Habbo Hotel, IMVU – even Club Penguin. All of these games helped to blur the borders between human being and game player; real life and simulation. Each of them engendered catfishing early on. Like playing ‘mummy and daddy’ or ‘doctors and nurses’ in the schoolyard, this was personal development disguised as play and maybe it affected more of us than you may think.
I asked a batch of people who didn’t have privileged identities (queer, non-white, physically disabled) if they had ever pretended to be somebody they weren’t on the internet. ‘Yes’ was the resounding answer. “On Habbo Hotel I pretended to be a boy and I used to try and get into as many relationships as possible”, one said – having treated it like a game. “The stuff I used to do online, if anyone found out that was me, I would definitely be in jail right now”, another said. Did you ever fall in love as this pretend person, was my final question. The very vast majority answered no. I realised that at this point, my story might not be so relatable. At this point I was more like Becca and less like them – or maybe they’re just lying, I reassured myself.
“Aged 11 I fell in love for the first time. My Habbo girl agreed to add me on MSN after I had made a fake email account. We spoke the entire summer”
But it’s true. Aged 11 I fell in love for the first time. My Habbo girl agreed to add me on MSN after I had made a fake email account. We spoke the entire summer between primary and secondary school; infancy to adolescence. I’d wake up each morning at 6am, when there’d only be us and a few others in the hotel. We’d speak all day and say goodnight at 4am, before I’d spend a hazy and drooping two hours sleep. I filled my closed eyes with visions of us together, visualising Matt’s body, my body, with hers. It was my favourite part of the day. When I didn’t have access to my computer I would daydream of us together for hours throughout the day. Throughout lessons, lunchtime, dinner. I wasn’t looking at the world, I was projecting images of us together under my eyelids.
Then when I was finally reunited with the machine, I’d put my hand on the warm mouse, like I was holding her hand. I’d be lit up by the screen and when I saw her name pop up, my stomach would lurch like a seesaw. The words on the screen hit hard like shy kisses. We’d talk ourselves to happy exhaustion, before shutting down the computer and taking our phones to bed. Texting was always the most romantic part. Under the sheets, with her lighting up and vibrating in my hands. “Goodnight, I’ll love you forever” we’d say. Then I’d wake up each morning with my cheek stuck to my phone. “Good morning, darling.”
In that summer of catfishing (I killed Matt off when secondary school got the better of me), it didn’t just feel like a performance, it felt like a total and holistic embodiment. Now that I’m in a relationship with a woman and have had my desires satiated for a long time, I look back on my Matt days with bemusement. How had I convinced myself that I really was ‘Matt’, and how had I fallen in love as him, I ask Kathrin. The answer is less romantic than I’d expected, as she points me towards Donna Haraway’s influential work A Cyborg Manifesto. Published decades before the term ‘catfishing’ was coined, this manifesto talks about how “there is no longer a distinction between human and computer. They are a part of us and we are a part of them. So much so that we’ve almost become powerless”. These ideas still circulate today and Kathrin tells me about a work published in 1995 by Sherry Turkle called Life on the Screen. It too argues that “people have started valuing technology over people...that we are really friends with our computers and cellphones more than we are friends with the people we’re connecting with through them”.
“There is no longer a distinction between human and computer. They are a part of us and we are a part of them” – Donna Haraway, A Cyborg Manifesto
These are radical ideas, and if it weren’t for my own experience, I would have rejected them. Computers are frighteningly lively, and people in the lowest positions of power offline are more likely than anyone to abuse the power of the machine. Take me, take Becca. Like her, I had deceived someone into loving me, or so I thought. While writing this piece I’ve tried each day to track down Matt’s love. It’s been 11 years since our summer together and the details she gave me were minimal. I didn’t even have a surname to work with. Neither of us ever asked to see a picture of the other, or to hear each other’s voice, or to meet up. After hours and hours of scrolling through names on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, I gave up. It took me that long to realise that this was a classic case of a double-catfishing. They provided no bodily identification then, and there’s no evidence that they exist in the world now. I won’t provide their name in case I am wrong, but their forename was distinct enough to only bring up three results on Facebook. Out of those three, none of them were anywhere near the age range of my summer love. Who I was speaking to could have been anyone, but I remember the rush of their words and the hours spent with them lighting up my face under the covers, and the days spent hearing the sound of their voice after they’d rebooted. I was in love. The love was so intense because it was entirely my own. Like a drug addiction, part of me wishes I could feel that again. But then I think of Becca now, lost without her online alias, and I realise that you should never bring a fantasy into the world that was never supposed to be there.