Yaniv Schulman realizes that his online girlfriend is not who she says she is.
Like we told you in our countdown of the 15 most disturbing documentaries of all time, there's nothing creepier than reality. NYC photographer Yaniv "Nev" Schulman, star of the unsettling new social networking doc Catfish, can attest to that fact. Back in 2007, Abby, a precocious eight-year-old artist from Michigan, approached him on Facebook because she liked his work and wanted to do paintings based on his photos. They began corresponding, and before long Nev was communicating regularly with her entire family—and falling for her older sister, Megan, an attractive dancer and singer who he'd never met in person. Their long-distance virtual relationship took a turn for the disturbing when he realized that she, and others, were not who they said they were at all. With his brother Ariel Schulman and friend Henry Joost, filmmaking partners who'd been documenting the seemingly sweet 21st-Century romance all along, Nev went to Michigan to get the truth. We won't spoil the disturbing surprise, but with Catfish in theaters today, Complex caught up with Nev to talk about social network con jobs and and how he's handling the platonic (and not-so-platonic) friend requests from strangers that are pouring in now that he's in the public eye...
Complex: When you realized that Megan was not who she said she was, and decided to go to Michigan to confront her, what was the scariest thing you imagined you'd find?
Yaniv Schulman: I don't know if it was a scary "thing" so much as the idea that, when we were going up to the house to meet the family, we would be physically at harm, that we could be hurt. I had never really conjured up or imagined anything because I had a very clear idea of what we were going to find, so it was only the lack of that that I was imagining. And then of course when we were there it was like, OK, wait a second, we might be pissing some people off and they might not know how to deal with it and they might hurt us. [Laughs.]
Complex: At the end of the movie, you look really depressed. How upset were you by these duplicitous relationships?
Yaniv Schulman: I've had two moments in my life where I sort of hit rock bottom. That was one of them. I had built up this daily interaction with these people who were distracting me from my life, building me up and really filling me with such excitement and hope, and then, when it was over and I came home, I felt like the last nine months meant nothing. It was really hard to pick myself up off the floor. Compounding that was, now my brother and Henry, who are my best friends, they had something awesome and exciting that they were working on, which was this movie. I sort resented them for that, like, "You're taking my heartbreak and turning it into your new awesome thing, and I'm like over here with nothing." I was alone in a sense.
Complex: How did this experience change your thoughts on social networking?
Yaniv Schulman: If anything, I feel like I only kind of gained sort of sense of appreciation for it. Now I kind of see it as this very unusual but totally contemporary art form, this really interesting place for expression and arts and like creating a voice. It's pretty interesting. I'm kind of really into it and I'm kind of against it.
Complex: This movie is making you visible and public, which leads to a lot of strangers wanting to connect with you on Facebook, Twitter, or your web site. Are you hesitant about that dynamic now?
Yaniv Schulman: Um, yes! I'm very concerned because up until now my online "presence," for lack of a better word, has been insignificant. My interactions [have been] with people I know and there's no reason anyone who I didn't know would search me out or be interested in me. It's the privacy-setting phenomenon. I definitely considered, as I think we all should, exactly what stuff and what info I want people to have access to, and then what stuff I want to keep private.
Complex: Are you blindly accepting friend requests?
Yaniv Schulman: No, I haven't accepted any friend request from anyone I haven't met in person. I have a lot of people who have requested me and I'm actually torn as to whether or not I should make my profile completely public so I can accept everybody's friend request. I'd rather do that but then I'm thinking I won't want to use that profile to communicate with my close real friends. So then do I need to make a new one? It's weird because the definition of the word "friend" has changed. I'd like to be able to share real personal stuff with my friends but that would then mean sharing it with a lot of other people who are not really my friends, so it's confusing. I'm really confused.
Complex: As a photographer and an artist, what did the experience teach you about your need for positive feedback and fans?
Yaniv Schulman: Yeah, that was one of the biggest things I learned about myself, that I am very susceptible to distraction and certainly the power of flattery. Looking back at the experience and going through footage and talking about it with people, I am still sort of amazed at how easily I was led down this rabbit hole and how sort of blindly I allowed myself to get wrapped up in this. I was dealing with an online fantasy as much my creation as it was theirs. I wanted the affirmation and I wanted the compliments and I wanted to feel like what I was doing meant something to someone else, which is what everybody wants.
Complex: How are you dealing with the idea of being a celebrity of sorts?
Yaniv Schulman: I would be crazy not to feel a lot of new strange feelings, certainly concern and nervousness. The idea of being thrust into the public eye not as a character in a movie but as yourself makes you—you're all out there on the line and [there are] so many people and so many different view points. I'm definitely concerned about people liking me, I guess. I think everybody is, right? I'm not sure exactly how it will pan out. I'm really just trying to stay as focused as I can before this sort of wave of whatever happens happens, making sure that the people in my life who are important to me, who I care about and who can help me and support me, are as strong and as close as possible.
Complex: Do you think your experience made you less likely to get caught up in flattery and people possibly pandering to you now that you're more recognizable?
Yaniv Schulman: I've been really careful because you don't know what people's intentions are. They might think that associating with me can somehow help them. After I meet somebody, if they've told me something that I'm interested in or that seems genuine, I might speak to other people who know them, kind of building a more multi-layered understanding of people before I allow myself to really engage.
Complex: Doing a little background research?
Yaniv Schulman: Yeah, doing a little background research on people if they happen to be in my life and are interested in interacting with me in some way.
Complex: If you're even slightly famous, it's very easy to take advantage of Facebook and Twitter to hook up with women you hardly know. Would you not take advantage of that?
Yaniv Schulman: There have been some people who have reached out to me now, having seen the film, either via e-mail or Facebook friend request. I have not responded to those few requests, or if I have it's been, "Thank you [but] I'm not available." Of course it feels nice when someone says, "Hi, I like the movie that you're in and I'd like to get a cup of coffee," but I can't. It's awkward. If someone came up to you on the street—it'd be weird in any circumstance to have a stranger ask you out, basically, and I don't know how to respond to that. The film is so personal and revealing, people sort of have a tendency to feel like they know me, and then they're comfortable enough to approach me. It must happen to actors and artists and musicians and dancers all the time but it's certainly new to me and I'm not really sure how to deal with it yet.
Complex: If you were to manufacture a false identity online, who would you be?
Yaniv Schulman: That's a fun question. [Long pause.] I'm not really sure. It would be fun to say I would be an Australian scuba diver/surfer who was also the head of some amazing organization that saves babies and invents new technology... I could go on forever making stuff up, but the reality is that I'm guilty of presenting the best version of myself through the Internet. Everybody does. That's what you gotta remember if you meet people online: They're only telling you the good things. Keep that in mind.
Complex: That's true, and a little unsettling.
Yaniv Schulman: By the way, if I could re-answer that last question, I would basically just be Indiana Jones, archeologist/professor/badass/hero/historian.