Nev Schulman of "Catfish": "I'm addicted to social media"

The filmmaker on his new book, "In Real Life," body issues and his own experience getting catfished

Published August 28, 2014 11:00PM (EDT)

Getting "catfished" was the best thing that ever happened to Nev Schulman.

Schulman, a photographer and aspiring filmmaker, began an online interaction with a family that became the basis for the 2010 film "Catfish," a documentary about how Schulman fell for a pack of lies told by a woman with an active imagination and a Facebook account. "Catfish" went on to become an MTV show in which Schulman, with cohost Max Joseph, helps others suss out the truth about their chat partners. And now Schulman has written "In Real Life," a book of advice for young people navigating life online.

The experiences depicted in "Catfish" are extreme and often bizarre; "In Real Life" deals with more quotidian issues, like transitioning a relationship from online to real life. While "Catfish" presumes everyone online is lying, "In Real Life" presumes its reader is a well-meaning social media addict. The book's advice -- to spend less time posting on and reading Facebook, for instance -- is a bit obvious, but will presumably be well-taken by its target audience. Less understandable are the book's very frequent references to weight loss -- Schulman is offended by people who pose for flatteringly angled photos to hide their weight, suggesting that they should instead lose weight. "If you’re unhappy about your weight, you've got to do something about it, and there are a lot of things you can do. So no more excuses. Figure it out."

As for the rest of his advice, though, Schulman makes clear he's muddling through, just like his readers are. "I’m not an expert. I don’t call myself an expert," he said. He's just a professional observer of the Web -- and, given his own social media fixation, perhaps the oldest teenager around.

Reading your book, I wondered about who your target audience was. Who do you think will benefit the most from this book?

I think I tried my best to write the book for a younger me. I was very fortunate to be born to and raised by a wonderful loving family in New York City and had access to great education and culture. But regardless of that I still really struggled with my own issues and my own insecurities and it took me, I think, considerably longer than the normal person to figure out who I was and how to certainly function as part of a society in a constructive way and really make friends. I sort of took the long way to get there. And I think along the way I really worked through some stuff and learned a lot about how to figure that stuff out. And I think with my experience making the show and meeting a lot of young people across the country, I kind of got the feeling that there isn’t a lot of information out there. There isn’t a lot of leadership, or role models, who speak plainly and sort of honestly about doing the work to become the person you want to be.

So while I think it sort of at its core offers a lot of helpful suggestions to younger people growing up through their teenage and young 20s, a lot of the advice in it is still very pertinent to me now at almost 30 and will continue to be stuff that I remind myself of for many years. So I don’t know if there is any specific audience. But I’d say anybody who is looking to grow up and change and learn about themselves.

Is it hard to convey information to teens without seeming like a scold or seeming like you are bossing them around? I imagine them sitting there thinking, "I just want to have fun on the Internet, leave me alone." 

I definitely considered that the entire time because I am sort of that way, though I’m not of the generation that grew up on Facebook. I’m just as fascinated and oftentimes addicted to social media myself. So the advice that I give or suggestions that I give apply directly to myself and I even talk about that. I’m constantly reminding the readers that I, too, am guilty of wasting hours on my phone and staying up late in bed scrolling through social media. And it’s not so much telling people what not to do as offering ideas and suggestions about things to also do.

Ever since you were catfished, do you catch yourself in problematic Internet behaviors?

An important part of the problem with social media is that we are so involved in what other people are doing that it keeps us from doing ourselves. And the only thing I’ve found that remedies or counteracts that is the act of doing. So I’m not nearly as interested or concerned or invested in social media and worried about what other people are doing when I know I’m doing something worthwhile. When I’m doing the show, I feel so great that I’m working and I’m doing something that I believe in and that I’m passionate about, that I’m all of a sudden liberated from a fear of missing out because I know what I’m doing is just as good as, if not better than, what everyone else is doing. So I think what the Internet and social media provides is a very unsatisfactory … Hold on, let me get this out. I don’t know if you can use this word — “Satiation”? No that’s not right.

I think that's a word.

What I’m trying to say is that we all crave and want to produce. We want to be able to build. We want to feel creative and productive and if you’re not actually doing the work and activity to feel that personally and physically, we turn to social media to sort of consume as much as we can of other people to somehow fill that void.

Have you ever found yourself in a relationship online where you have had to put into practice the skills you laid out in your book -- have you ever gotten close to getting “catfished" again?

I don’t know if I’ve come close to getting, quote, “catfished,” by the definition that we’ve added to the dictionary. I do feel like there have been moments over the past years where I have found myself engaging with someone digitally through social media in a way that, more than anything, provides a distraction and some form of satisfaction, knowing that I’m communicating with someone else who is attracted to me or is flirtatious or sexy. Yet, what I’m really doing is using that interaction to avoid or procrastinate from whether it’s work or some sort of personal development or friendship development or any number of things that I should want to be doing, but the ease and fun of a digital exchange is a much more tempting option.

Did you feel like this book was in any way an obligation that you owed to younger people -- as an expert on these kinds of relationships -- or was it just something that you thought would be fun?

Realistically, I’m not an expert. I don’t call myself an expert. In fact, I’m often impressed by, and sometimes even jealous of, what people who don’t make TV shows about Internet relationships have to say about that, because if you’re smart and you spend any amount of time thinking about anything, you’ll have interesting and insightful things to say.

So I’ve just spent a lot of time thinking about it and talking about it and feeding and experiencing it and more than anything, certainly more than my unofficial expertise on the matter, I realized what really needs to be happening is that there needs to be a more open and meaningful conversation about social media and how and why we use it, as well as what it is that we are avoiding or struggling with or afraid of that makes social media such an appealing distraction or sort of scapegoat from it. So that’s what I’m trying to do with the show. What I’m trying to do with the book is just offer some kind of talking points and some kind of discussion topics to get people thinking and discussing it for themselves.

The cases that you deal with on the show are so extreme, but then some of the behaviors you describe are pretty relatable universally. It seems like you don’t have to be utterly lying about your identity and stealing photos to maybe be using social media in a way that’s affecting your life negatively. Where's the line?

That was the last piece of my previous answer that I forgot to add in. I think social media and certainly online relationships of any nature really give us an opportunity to engage in ways that we’re either afraid of or too shy or are incapable of, or at least feel incapable of, engaging in real life. And I think, in many cases, there are a lot of people who use social media to share creativity and ideas and make meaningful lasting relationships and friendships.

I guess in theory, it’s all about intentions for a lot of people who have been on the show. They are, to some extent, aware of the fact that there is something about themselves that they would like to change or an issue that they are dealing with or something they are insecure about or are afraid of and perhaps they don’t know of, or don’t feel comfortable finding a resource or reaching out to someone in their lives, so the Internet becomes a place to sort of approach, and perhaps deal with, or tiptoe around some of these issues. And it can lead to these types of relationships that I don’t think were intentional from the offset. But if you’re unclear with yourself about what you want or what you’re dealing with and you’re engaging with people under any kind of false pretense it can inevitably lead to deception or misunderstanding.

On the show “Catfish,” you are dropping in and out of people’s lives for a short time. So I wonder how comfortable you feel extrapolating out from what you see given that it could be a somewhat limited picture, perhaps, of this person’s social scene and everything about their lives.

I definitely didn’t put anything down that wasn’t either directly communicated to me or something that I personally felt or dealt with myself. Again, I was really careful not to make any sort of definitive presumptions based on what I saw because, again, I’ll say a million times, I’m not an expert. I didn’t study technology. I didn’t even get my college degree in liberal arts. I’m just someone who has spent a lot of time thinking and discussing and struggling with these issues and talked to and listened to a lot of people talk about theirs. And done my best to come up with some suggestions, which is basically what I’m calling them, on what they could mean, and how we can deal with it and hopefully get some solutions to feeling better and living a more meaningful, honest, vulnerable, fulfilling life.

You’ve now spent years working on and around projects related to social media -- the film, the TV show and now the book. Do you ever, as an artist, as a person who’s really interested in photography, as a thinker, do you ever want to do a project about other topics?

Yeah. Absolutely. I think what’s exciting for me right now is working on a new project that gets people moving. I want to work towards promoting a more meaningful and certainly more physical means for connection and community. And I think what we’ve done with the show “Catfish” is get people talking and that’s amazing. And the people who have come up to me that are teenage girls or middle-aged dads tell me that watching “Catfish” started a conversation between them and their kids and their friends about online dating and social media and dealing with issues and things like that and that’s exciting to me.

There are a couple of instances in your book in which you discuss how people who want to feel better about their body should eat better and work out. And also on the television show, a lot of the time the “catfishers” are insecure about their bodies; they're hiding behind their avatar because they’re insecure about their weight. Do you worry about making overweight people feel bad or stereotyped in any way?

I’m certainly sensitive to the reality of health in this country. It’s something that I see and deal with on the show a lot. And while I’ve been incredibly fortunate to be born with a body that is athletic and fit, I struggle with my own physical issues, and I’ve been working really hard to correct them and it’s not easy and it’s frustrating at times. And I just think we have such incredible potential, all of us. And whether that means getting yourself into the physical shape that will make you happier or working hard to go to a university and get your master’s or become a doctor or whatever it is that you want in life, I just want people to understand that it’s within reach but you’ve got to reach. And I think for a lot of people I’ve met there’s this sort of idea or concept that “I’ll get to it” or “something will change” or “something will happen” or “somehow I’ll figure it out but not right now” or “in the meantime, I’ll do this.”

I’ve learned as an almost-30-year-old that this just doesn’t happen. If you want something, you’ve got to start working for it immediately and every day you’re not it’s getting further away. So while I think it is a little -- I definitely speak bluntly and a little harshly about it -- I think of the times that I’ve had people speak to me that way, and I’m glad they did; that was the tone I needed to understand that if I’m going to do something and I’m going to do it well, I need to cut the bullshit and really start putting in the hard work. And if you’re unhappy about your weight, you've got to do something about it and there are a lot of things you can do. So no more excuses. Figure it out.

Is there anything you feel as though you have made excuses about and that you wish you hadn’t and that you try not to?

Sure. There’s plenty. I mentioned one before about my body. I’m not complaining at all. But I have struggled with really bad back pain for most of my adult life. I’m not exactly sure why. There’s a number of possible reasons: general tight muscles, my mom has scoliosis. I might have a little bit of it too. But there are a million things I could be doing including stretching every day that I still don’t do. For some reason I’m not capable completely of doing what I know is best for me. And I’m trying to work on it all the time. I’m constantly working on improving my habits. The same goes for eating. While I’m not overweight, I could be eating a lot healthier. I want to treat my body well. So that’s something I’m still working toward. And then personality and sort of emotional-wise I think there are some major issues I’ve avoided dealing with my whole life that I’m just now starting to address and they’re big things and they are things that I think I’ve avoided because they are difficult, and yet now I’m to that point where to continue moving forward in my current relationship I need to do this. So, OK, time's up. I’ve waited long enough too long. I don’t have a choice.

Does it make you feel nervous giving other people advice when you’ve deferred these things and are starting to work on them now?

I think I feel very confident giving people advice because I’m not saying that I know the answer for you. But I know what I have and have not done and what has and hasn’t worked for me. So if you’re reading the book and you happen to see something that strikes a chord, great! Or if you’re reading the book and you see something that gets you thinking and leans you toward your own solution, even better. But I think what does make my advice valid is that I’m giving it to myself also. I’m just as vulnerable. I’m just as in need of the same advice as I think people reading will be. So I’m not giving this advice from a podium, a pedestal. I’m down in the shit with you.

By Daniel D'Addario

MORE FROM Daniel D'Addario

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Advice Body Issues Catfish In Real Life Nev Schulman Social Media