It was January and cold and the beginning of my last semester of college. To avoid these conditions, I holed up in my room and watched MTV’s reality television show “Catfish” until it was February and cold and I, underprepared, desiccating, had only three folders for five syllabi. Then I left my room. I began seeing catfish everywhere. I fell in love with the idea of a bird. This is Audrey’s story. Dun-dun-dun.
“Catfish’s” ultimate challenge is, I believe, creating action out of physical inaction. Most of catfishing takes place in a dimension closed off to video cameras, but Nev and Max—the two hosts of “Catfish”—really try to physicalize the experience. And how they try. Each episode of “Catfish” involves at least one plane ride, four car trips, a pillow fight in a hotel room, a fumble for a cellphone, a high five/fist pump, a hug, and a detour to a local coffeeshop. Nev knocks on doors. Nev dances. Max stands up. Max sits down. Throughout, the two men walk around so much so that Max holds both a steadycam and a digital camera to capture the extra action.
This is how it goes: a person falls in love with a person—an image of a person, really—on a social media platform; then, the person goes AWOL or haywire. The catfished, concerned, sends an email to MTV’s Nev and Max, who fly out to meet the catfished, get the backstory, then, armed with info, leave for a hotel room. Then comes the most exciting part: they open a web browser. They investigate. They Google. They scour multiple social platforms for the catfish, contacting the people digitally surrounding the catfish, calling and messaging them until the catfish finally emerges, mythological, mysterious, after the ad break.
“Catfish” shows, step by step, the painful transition from expectation to reality mediated by screens. It’s in its seventh season now, and for good reason: watching the destruction of a person’s reality never really grows old. There is no same way a person’s reality is destroyed. “It’s like a movie, but real,” said a man confronting his catfish, both of them suddenly pushed out into the cruel, loveless world of a park in Cleveland. (Season 6 Episode 18: Nicole & Nicole). Once the hygienic pixels are replaced with a sweaty palm, we are supposed to feel relieved that this façade has been peeled away. I nod at the screen—good for you, Nicole! We are thankful, proud, happy. We are better now. Clearer-eyed. We won’t be fooled again. I watched all available episodes of “Catfish” and searched desperately for a similar feeling of digital rebirth. I discovered livestreams.
Livestreams prove that it is possible to live under constant surveillance. It proves that there is such a thing as a life broadcasted 24/7; it also proves that there is an audience 24/7 to watch it. I found an ornithology channel. I watched livestreams of birds because a screen showing a live bird in another country somehow felt like a better confirmation of my existence than the pigeons in Washington Square Park. I liked the one of the Panama Fruit Feeder the best. The Panama Fruit Feeder is dark-feathered, with a long beak. It looks like a toucan. It’s quite adorable. I also liked the greenery of the livestream, which the Cornell Lab Bird Cam describes as “2,000 ft above sea level in the low mountains of Cerro Gaital, with a mild springtime climate year-round.” On the sixth floor of the library, I would sit by a window and trade glances between West 3rd Street and the greenery of a forest 2,000 ft. above sea level. But, strangely, I have never seen the Panama Fruit Feeder itself.
I checked in at odd hours. Sometimes the screen was dark; sometimes the forest was empty; sometimes, at night, I’d see a large rat-looking creature scrounging through leaves. I still never saw the bird, but that was fine because the Panama Fruit Feeder was there, somewhere, even out of sight, because the title of the livestream—”Panama Fruit Feeder Cam at Canopy Lodge”—guaranteed its existence. I waited. I watched the dark screen. The rodent’s eyes glowed and I ignored the ick in my stomach: was I being catfished by a bird?
The 24-hour streams, like the catfish, exist and grow because voyeurism is the byproduct of a fixated gaze. We may not like or believe in what we’re watching but it’s there, it’s rouses, and nothing marks a Huxleyan better than a livestream of an empty forest. It could be a video on loop and I would not know. In the end, I don’t know if it would have even mattered. More important was that a video of the Panama Fruit Feeder was available at any hour with the promise of a bird. I sometimes feel a little bad about watching or wanting to see the bird. But I refresh the tab. I watch a remorseless catfish laugh to himself and think that maybe he understands, better than any of us, what this is all about. (Season 5, Episode 13: Lucas & Many).