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Catfishing Vs. Performance Art: What Manti Te'o And Spencer Pratt Have In Common

Catfishing Vs. Performance Art: What Manti Te'o And Spencer Pratt Have In Common

The emergence of social media as a storytelling platform has challenged traditional performance artists and fiction writers to integrate new media into their art. Netprov, an abbreviation for networked improv narrative, is Mark Marino and Rob Wittig’s response to this challenge, “a kind of catfish lit” with one of their primary goals being “to induce a moment of vertigo where people don’t know if it is quite real or not."

Although the overarching plot or story of these fabricated internet tales is planned in advance, the text is improvised—usually via 140 character Tweets. The interactive nature of the internet creates a spontaneous and unpredictable environment for the story to unfold in, and is further confused with the addition of fake media that makes the farce seem all the more real. As Wittig explains in his “video” recreation of a presentation he gave at Electronic Literature Organization in Morgantown, West Virginia, he sometimes hires models to act in videos or pose in photos which he posts to accompany the story.

On January 1st, days after Te’o informed Notre Dame of his now-infamous girlfriend hoax, Spencer Pratt, the notorious reality star bad boy and husband to the ex-Hills star Heidi Montag, lent out his Twitter account to Marino and Wittig for a netprov performance that lasted a few weeks.

photo by Chris Weeks/WireImage.com

The artists began by responding to anyone who asked for a retweet, then upped the ante with a challenge saying, “This rt-ing is wearing out my thumbs. Perhaps a challenge is in order: rt’s only for haikus,” followed by, “Well, I am hereby asserting that I am a new man on Twitter, like Scrooge after the ghostly visits, a man of generosity and deep good will!” They even were a bit self-referential, saying, “Found this wild book of poetry for Heidi. It’s called Between Page and Screen by Amaranth Borsuk: some kind of augmented reality poetry.”

Tempspence’s Twitter profile picture, now that Spencer has regained control of his account

As the story develops, they reveal that they are not actually Spencer via a tweet where they say, “Call me #tempspence. I think I would prefer that to douchebag.” He poses a variety of challenges and engages Pratt’s Twitter followers in word play as a fictional story develops. Readers get 140 character views of the writer’s romantic (and fictionalized) relationships with Una, a writer of Twilight fan fiction, and Duessa, a fellow poet who he meets at a poetry reading that Una doesn’t show up for.

screenshot of Spencer Pratt’s Twitter feed during the Netprov

Some previous examples of Marino and Wittig’s work includes The Ballad of Workstudy Seth where a very grammatically-challenged college student took over Professor Marino’s Twitter feed. His job is to be in charge of the social media, however some of the posts coming from this Professor Marino included lines such as “jus told me im posting 2 much, need to spread em out, and watch grammar films (sy)” or “told me he x-pex me to handle his social networking over spring break—iz ther wifi in cabo?”. Although Seth is a fictional character, he was created to illustrate a point about the modern college student, and, ultimately, to tell a story.

Artists Rob Wittig and Mark Marino, photos from Google Image

Another Netprov performance was FAIL, an acronym for Fantasy Automated Investor’s League. In this Netprov, the three main characters, Dan, Lisa and Consuela, play a fantasy football-style game using investors instead of quarterbacks. Over the course of the game/performance, which people could follow via 140 character tweets posted by the Dan, Lisa, Consuela, and other secondary characters, we learn about the personal and professional lives of our protagonists. Because Twitter is inherently interactive, story followers could easily participate in it by posting something to #fail12.

Netprov Performance FAIL

Of course Marino and Wittig aren’t the first ones to use the internet as a means for tricking the audience… er, staging a performance that blurs the lines between reality and construct. One early example is 2006’s Lonelygirl15, who created a YouTube vlog to document her own story and eventually that of her family and their involvement in a fictional cult.

The question of what “reality” is becomes even more complicated online, where even the “real” versions of ourselves are carefully pruned caricatures of how we want to be perceived. So what does it mean when someone like Spencer Pratt, whose “true nature” as a reality TV star is itself a fabrication, proves to be a farce? As Motherboard said in recent article, “perhaps we all live in Manti Te’o’s internet-reality.”

What makes Te’os hoax immoral and the Spencer Pratt hoax performance art? As always with art, it’s about the intention.

@megyoungblood