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‘In Real Life: Love, Lies & Identity in the Digital Age’

by Nev Schulman

Grand Central, 244 pp., $16

If you think a catfish is a river-dwelling bottom feeder with whiskers, chances are you’re not active on social media. Which also means that you’ve probably never heard of Nev Schulman, who’s credited with turning the word into a social-media term through his movie “Catfish,” or of his new book, “In Real Life.”

UrbanDictionary.com defines a catfish as a person who “pretends to be someone they’re not, using Facebook or other social media to create false identities, particularly to pursue deceptive online romances.” Spoiler alert: This happened to then-22-year-old Schulman in 2007. The unwary victim of a middle-aged female catfish, he, his brother and a friend turned the story into a documentary. So great was the film’s success that in 2012 Schulman and another friend started “Catfish: The TV Show” on MTV to explore other people’s catfish stories. Schulman writes that “Facebook admits that a mind-boggling 83 million Facebook profiles — 8.7 percent of all profiles — are fakes or dupes.”

“In Real Life” gives advice to anyone who devotes time and energy to social media, especially advice on how to better navigate the Internet and manage our digital identities. Schulman notes that many people use social media to lie about themselves and to criticize others recklessly, all of which can lead to becoming a catfish. He has deactivated his Facebook account and advocates cutting down on the use of smartphones and laptops so that people can spend more time talking to one another face to face. At times the book can seem repetitive, and one might question the wisdom of a writer who admits to striking a woman whom he mistook for a man (for which he was expelled from college). But it can be argued that Schulman’s flaws allow him to drive home the message that people can recover from their mistakes.

Schulman has seen first hand how broken and desperate unmasked catfish are. He offers positive steps people can take to make their offline lives more meaningful than their online ones.