Tangled on the Web
MSU students discuss their thoughts on online dating at the university.
Kate Smith knew there was something off about him. Maybe it was how his profile didn’t say much. Maybe it was how he kept messaging Smith — a student whose name has been changed to protect her privacy.
Or, maybe it was how he asked for personal information, including her address. Because when Smith finally met the student she had been talking to online, she knew her intuition was right.
“He was looking for really sexual things,” she said. “I was really repulsed by him.”
Online dating sites provide the option for students to misrepresent, exaggerate or even create things about themselves, with no way of others knowing the truth. This was seen in the recent case of former Notre Dame linebacker Manti Te’o, who announced the “alleged” girl he was talking to online since 2009 was not real. The announcement of the “death” of his girlfriend was made before the team played MSU in September 2012, and reports later revealed his girlfriend was fake.
What happened to Te’o is known as catfishing, a term made popular by the movie “Catfish” and MTV’s “Catfish: The TV Show.” Catfishing refers to two people connecting online and forming a virtual relationship, but when the two meet, one person finds out the other was not telling the truth online.
Saleem Alhabash, assistant professor of public relations and social media at MSU, said even a small detail on a profile is enough for someone to judge you.
“College students and people from other age groups need to be careful about what information they put online because it’s very different than face-to-face interaction,” Alhabash said. “Whatever we put out online will stay there.”
The online dating scene has evolved, and students are faced with more than just considering their online date’s attractiveness or charm — there now is the question of whether the person is telling the truth.
Waterford, Mich., resident Ryan Shaltry created allMSU to get information out to MSU students. He said the site’s dating feature was an afterthought.
“It was always just listening to what the community needed and what I thought would be useful for them,” Shaltry said. “It’s a much more safe and controlled environment because it is limited to students.”
AllMSU is a place for MSU students to interact on a variety of topics, ranging from housing to finding a date.
Some users of allMSU and other online dating sites do tell the truth on their profiles, but might lay on their charm too strong.
When Smith met the student she had been talking to on allMSU, he proved to be truthful to his profile and in the picture he sent to Smith. Although Smith said she felt a bad vibe from the male student, she decided to meet him.
“I thought, ‘Maybe I’m just reading too much into it, and I’m going to give him the benefit of the doubt,’” she said.
Alumna Emily O’Rielly, who has had a profile on allMSU for more than a year, said one man messaged her about his personal problems, such as how he doesn’t have a job.
“He seemed really weird,” O’Rielly said. “Just the stories … Why would you tell someone you just met on a website how worthless you are?”
Why trust them?
The reality is, some people, including Smith, still wind up face to face with people they meet online. This leaves the possibility of being catfished.
Kayla Hales, assistant professor in the Department of Telecommunication, Information Studies and Media, said catfishing has been occurring for a long time, but it only recently received popularity.
Alhabash and Hales contributed to a study looking at how people respond to different stereotypes on online dating profiles.
The first part of the study set up fake profiles and exposed the participants to the pages, which didn’t disclose names or pictures, but included characteristics stereotypical to black or white people, such as interests and level of education. The second part of the study included photos on the fake profile, and participants were shown profiles based on their sexual preference.
Most of the heterosexual white females surveyed related to and saw the profiles with white stereotypes and photos as more attractive.
Outside his research, Alhabash said users’ preferences online might vary by age.
“We are dealing with a culture where online students are hooking up rather than dating for the sake of long-term relationships,” he said.
Alhabash said online daters are able to form an impression of someone based on little details on one’s profile.
“Whenever (we) are going to seek romantic partners online, we tend to look for characteristics that we like and things that we are comfortable with,” Alhabash said. “Then we just evaluate the person.”
Hales said anyone who goes online is susceptible to being catfished, and those who go online more often increase their chances of falling for a scam.
“If you are the type of person to go online and meet people, you could be susceptible to this,” Hales said.
Alhabash said it’s hard to determine what makes one online dating site more or less safe compared to another.
“It’s individual practice that people need to maintain their privacy settings and be cautious about who to give their information to,” he said.
Nicole Ellison, associate professor in the School of Information at the University of Michigan, who used to teach at MSU and has done research on social media, said there are some things students can look for in a profile to recognize if the person is lying, including inconsistencies in the conversations and profile, or if someone if trying to control the communication medium.
Smith said when she met the students she talked to on allMSU face to face, she made sure to meet in a public place and bring a friend along.
The technique of “creeping” is a tool some students, including Smith and O’Rielly, use to see if people are lying.
For Steve, an MSU student who wished to not include his last name, finding the message, “hey what’s up ;)” on his door’s whiteboard was enough make him think he was being catfished.
He and his roommate began to investigate if the mystery girl was real. With only a first name, they set out to find her on Facebook.
“We thought it was a fake person,” Steve said.
“She told me she had class at one time … (and) we looked to see if there was a class.”
Despite suspicions, Steve eventually found the mystery girl was a real person when he caught her writing on his whiteboard.
“If you were to know the personalities, we both just went out there and joked about it,” Steve said, adding they remained friends.