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'Catfish' star Nev Schulman thinks you should quit the Internet



Nev Schulman wants to be the next Dr. Drew. Or Dr. Phil. Any doctor who specializes in treating the symptoms of mass culture will do, really. 

Instead of going to medical school, though, Schulman hosts Catfish, an MTV show about misuse of the Internet. In Real Life: Love, Lies & Identity in the Digital Age, his new book, is touted as a companion to the show—a glimpse into Schulman’s juicy personal life, yes, but also a guide for living digitally, for who better to teach the teens whose parents will buy them this book for Christmas not to sext than a dude whose entire career is based on the fact that he sexted a hot babe who turned out to be a middle-aged Michigan mom? 

The problem with In Real Life isn’t that Schulman is the kind of guy who says things like this:

"Having been in a three-year relationship with a professional ballerina, I was used to women who were ridiculously toned and lean."

The problem is that Schulman, Internet expert, has no idea how people actually use the Internet. He also, perhaps more troublingly, seems to have a dangerously tenuous grasp on real life. 

The book’s format is much more self-help than memoir or narrative—nearly every chapter opens with Schulman's rules for chatting online, for dating online, for engaging in sex acts online, coupled with an embarrassing anecdote from our author’s personal life meant to demonstrate the value of his hard-earned wisdom. Some of the rules, rote as they may be, are not without merit—I have no problem with reminding people to meet Internet strangers in a public place, or that even Snapchat nudes can resurface when least expected.

Most of them, though, boil down to the idea that getting offline will make life demonstrably better for the user. Facebook and Twitter have become substitutes for human interaction, says Schulman, and we’d all be better off connecting face-to-face. There’s an entire chapter on what it means to be a friend:

"Someone didn't ask to be your friend. They just became your friend because you spent time with them… but then Facebook came along and decided that all that's required of someone to be your friend is a mere click of a mouse. They are witnesses to your life, not participants in it."

Most of us, I think, possess at least some kind of internal taxonomy that establishes in our minds a hierarchy of other people. I know that my father is distinct from my boss, that my old roommate is distinct from a girl I sat next to in class, that my sixth-grade partner-in-crime is distinct from the high school trainwreck I can’t help but follow. Each of them gets exactly the amount of attention they deserve. Schulman's book assumes I don’t know how to do this, that I allot all Facebook friends an equal portion of my time and affection, and what’s more, that I give that time and affection online instead of doing so in real life. 

What he’s missing is that the Internet isn’t, for billions of people, a replacement for physical interaction, but a complement to it. The people I email with all day at work are, by and large, the people I meet for drinks after work (to say nothing of the Internet’s ability to fill the space between meetings or projects or classes, allowing for a moment of engaging with the world whilst trapped at a desk). Shutting that off (like Schulman suggests) would mean disconnecting from a volley of conversation that moves seamlessly between online space and corporeal space, because that’s the great thing about digital communication—at the end of the day, we’re saying the same things. 

The other, more insidious thing about Schulman's advice is that it mostly stops at “get offline.” He does, in a chapter about Twitter, offer a list of things the reader might do once he or she cuts screen time:

“Take up exercise and lose twenty pounds
Become a really good cook
Learn a new language
Master the guitar”

He mentions successful friends (virtually all of them white men, incidentally) who create instead of consume, support instead of critique. There’s a disconnect, though, in that Schulman skips steps 2-10 of the process. If we start by getting offline, and end with our own television show, what happens in the middle? Who pays for the guitar lessons? How do we find time to exercise and cook amid the mundane demands of school, work, and childcare?

He extends this conceit of feast or famine to his own life in a chapter where he talks about resetting his problematic sex life by committing to a year of celibacy—just like the only way to use the Internet for good is to turn it off, the only way to learn about respecting women is to avoid them. Predictably, it ends with Schulman falling in love and breaking the vow 100 days early, but it’s a nice reminder that the whole book isn’t so much a guide to using the Internet as it is a guide to being Nev Schulman, person with no impulse control or ability to discern meaning without having it spelled out by someone else, and person with the resources to remake his life in a new, incredibly condescending image. 

That Schulman would write such a book isn’t shocking—his persona on the show is of a person who both empathizes with its subjects (it happened to him, remember) and judges them (“NOT EVERYONE CAN AFFORD A WEBCAM” is a statement I find myself shouting at the television every time I watch the Catfish guys incredulously question a victim). In Real Life is more of the same—Schulman gets what it’s like to be distracted by Facebook chat, because he used to be distracted by Facebook chat! Now, though, he’s deleted the app, and to show for it, he’s got true friends, a successful career, and a singer-songwriter girlfriend. What he leaves out, of course, is that his privilege probably would have allowed him to collect those things anyway. Even if we take the Internet out of the equation, how are the rest of us supposed to manage?

This is distilled, in the book, to a moment in which Schulman warns the reader against posting anything potentially regrettable online, because it will find you again, “even if,” he says, “it’s just the manager of the local 7 Eleven Googling you before they hire you.”

So in the end, all the book tells us is that in Schulman's world, you’re the star of MTV’s most popular show or you stock shelves for minimum wage.

There’s no room for anything else. 

Photo via MingleMediaTVNetwork/Flickr (CC BY SA 2.0)

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