Notre Dame athletic director Jack Swarbrick wasn't the only one name-checking "Catfish," in the wake of the Manti Te'o saga.
By Thursday morning, the term was popping up on Twitter feeds and Facebook updates and online headlines as word spread of the massive hoax involving Notre Dame linebacker Te'o's supposed girlfriend, who supposedly died of Leukemia but actually never existed.
"Catfish" is the title of a 2010 documentary that follows 24-year-old New Yorker Nev Schulman as he falls in love online with a 19-year-old girl from Michigan (so he thinks). The film spawned an MTV series of the same name (starring Schulman) and an Urban Dictionary definition: "A catfish is someone who pretends to be someone they're not using Facebook or other social media to create false identities, particularly to pursue deceptive online romances."
Te'o is the Heisman Trophy runner-up who was celebrated for leading his team to the national championship game, even as he mourned the recent deaths of both his grandmother, Annette Santiago, and girlfriend, Lennay Kekua. The grandmother part was true. The girlfriend part was not. Questions remain about whether Te'o was duped into believing he was communicating online and via phone with the so-called Kekua, or whether he was in on the hoax. Notre Dame officials are defending their star player.
It's a story whose hourly twists and turns have understandably captivated the social media world. But as hashtag shorthand, "catfish" is a departure from the term's original meaning, says Paul Booth, assistant professor of media studies at DePaul University. At least as the filmmakers imagined it.
"'Catfish' is used in the movie in almost a positive way," says Booth. "Notre Dame is not a positive story."
Toward the end of the movie, Schulman meets the 40-year-old woman who was posing as his 19-year-old paramour -- and the woman's husband.
Her husband tells a story about fishermen shipping vats of cod from Alaska to China, which frequently resulted in the codfish turning to mush. Someone suggested placing catfish in the vats to keep the cod agile.
"And there are those people who are catfish in life," the husband says in the film. "And they keep you on your toes. They keep you guessing, they keep you thinking, they keep you fresh. And I thank god for the catfish because we would be droll, boring and dull if we didn't have somebody nipping at our fin."
Booth, who shows "Catfish" in his communication, technology and society classes, says the term's newly adopted definition is helping shape a community of followers surrounding the Notre Dame saga -- for better or worse.
"It's good to keep the idea in our discourse," he says. "It's important to caution people from falling prey to some pretty nefarious people online."
But when a news event's language becomes an inside joke of sorts, the event itself can become a parody.
"The catfish hashtag feels like people saying, 'This event is just like that MTV show,'" he says. "We sort of lose that connection to it being a real event that left people feeling violated and hurt."
("Catfish: The TV show", recently renewed by MTV for a second season, introduces couples who've never met in person to see if both parties are who they claim to be, while a rapt audience watches at home.)
"You feel like you're part of a community that's watching something together and using a common word for it," he says. "But by using that one word, you can't get very nuanced and you're leaving out hundreds of other words that could also be used."
"Deception," he suggests.
Also, it turns out, the name of a new TV series -- airing Monday nights on NBC.
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