Facebook fact, Facebook fiction

Despite its much-discussed dark side, Catfish is a profoundly positive film.

Last year's runaway cinematic success, The Social Network, is routinely described as "the film about Facebook" -- but anyone who has seen Catfish, a documentary by Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman, will realise that this low-budget reality thriller captures the everyday reality of the site in a way that was not possible for a film as busy as Sorkin's.

As A O Scott of the New York Times puts it:

The Social Network is about origins, while Catfish, at once narrower and more universal in implication, is about consequences. Mr Zuckerberg may be the genius who invented Facebook and cashed in on its success but many of the rest of us live, at least some of the time, in the world he made and, on the evidence of Catfish, it can be a pretty creepy place.

Some critics believe the term "creepy" doesn't do justice to the film world of Catfish. According to the Economist: "The film has been called 'creepy' -- a description at once appropriate and insufficient. Creepiness is a skin-deep sensation, whereas the twists and turns of Catfish ultimately create a portrait of loneliness and grief."

Critics have contorted themselves to avoid revealing those twists, while at the same time asking if such a multi-layered tale could possibly be captured purely through opportunistic filming. And, if not, is Angela Wesselman -- who is at the centre of the film's twists and turns -- a victim of artistically motivated cruelty?

Philip French in the Observer has this to say: "Much of the apparent authenticity of Catfish derives from the grainy, rough-and-ready quality of its filming. This is a developing story captured on the wing by larky, creative explorers with cameras in hand. If it is real, are the makers exploiting their unwitting collaborators?"

For as long as the film-makers maintain their creation is 100 per cent true, there is no way of knowing where on the spectrum of fact and fiction Catfish lies, although this will not prevent speculation. (Ryan Gilbey's Guardian article points readers in the direction of some compelling theories -- beware, spoilers.) But even if the most cynical suspicions are correct, Catfish still provides us with an up-to-the-minute piece of cultural commentary. It is a rolling collage that demonstrates the most popular forms of technology and the way they function in our daily lives. The star of Catfish is Nev Schulman, a 24-year-old New York photographer who shares an office with his brother, Ariel, and Henry Joost, both film-makers. The trio have laptops, iPhones, satnavs and mini-HD cameras. Tim Robey of the Telegraph finds the film-makers chance recording of Nev's internet romance to be a logical extension of their plugged-in lifestyle: "Nev, a subject who is knowing and naively good-natured by turns, is part of a generation that embraces constant surveillance: it seems quite plausible that the camera was such a constant presence in his life that it naturally captured everything."

Sceptics have questioned the likelihood of Nev, a good-looking, likeable guy, finding himself sucked into an online relationship. Jonathan Romney in the Independent scoffs: "I can't buy the idea . . . that someone like him would be gauchely susceptible to e-flirtation in the first place." But he misses an interesting point, which is that the social profile of the kind of person who uses the internet for romance has changed. Online relationships are no longer a last resort for nerds and recluses. They are now a logical option for time-poor young people who have grown up using the internet for everything from music to work and who find it natural and logical to use it to search for romance as well. Nev is the poster boy for the internet generation and, for a while, he seems to be on to something good.

Kaleem Aftab at the Independent sees things from this perspective: "The two have never met but as Nev begins to Photoshop pictures of himself with Megan to see how they'd look together as a couple, the love story takes on the air of a schoolboy with crush on a celebrity. He's giddy but can he really know her from this online communication? Perhaps. Perhaps he even knows her better than if they'd gone on a series of dates."

Even the twists that shalt not be named have not driven Nev to condemn Facebook and in a recent interview given he revealed that he is currently seeing a girl who contacted him through the site. "I am seeing a girl I met on Facebook. She Facebooked me out of nowhere and the first thing I said was: 'You look and sound great, but I'm not going to invest emotionally in this until we meet in person.'"

He is also still friends with Angela Wesselman. What remains when all the internet rumours melt away is the faith in people, technology and romance that Nev shows in the film.

HEINZ BAUMANN/GALLERY STOCK
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With the BBC Food’s collection under threat, here's how to make the most of online recipes

Do a bit of digging, trust your instincts – and always read the comments.

I don’t think John Humphrys is much of a chef. Recently, as his Today co-presenter Mishal Husain was discussing the implications of the BBC’s decision to axe its Food website (since commuted to transportation to the Good Food platform, run by its commercial arm), sharp-eared listeners heard the Humph claim that fewer recipes on the web could only be a good thing. “It would make it easier!” he bellowed in the background. “We wouldn’t have to choose between so many!”

Husain also seemed puzzled as to why anyone would need more than one recipe for spaghetti bolognese – but, as any keen cook knows, you can never have too many different takes on a dish. Just as you wouldn’t want to get all your news from a single source, it would be a sad thing to eat the same bolognese for the rest of your life. Sometimes only a molto autentico version, as laid down by a fierce Italian donna, rich with tradition and chopped liver, will do – and sometimes, though you would never admit it in a national magazine, you crave the comfort of your mum’s spag bol with grated cheddar.

The world wouldn’t starve without BBC Food’s collection but, given that an online search for “spaghetti bolognese recipe” turns up about a million results, it would have been sad to have lost one of the internet’s more trustworthy sources of information. As someone who spends a large part of each week researching and testing recipes, I can assure you that genuinely reliable ones are rarer than decent chips after closing time. But although it is certainly the only place you’ll find the Most Haunted host Yvette Fielding’s kedgeree alongside Heston Blumenthal’s snail porridge, the BBC website is not the only one that is worth your time.

The good thing about newspaper, magazine and other commercial platforms is that most still have just enough budget to ensure that their recipes will have been made at least twice – once by the writer and once for the accompanying photographs – though sadly the days when everyone employed an independent recipe tester are long gone. Such sites also often have sufficient traffic to generate a useful volume of comments. I never make a recipe without scrolling down to see what other people have said about it. Get past the “Can’t wait to make this!” brigade; ignore the annoying people who swap baked beans for lentils and then complain, “This is nothing like dhal”; and there’s usually some sensible advice in there, too.

But what about when you leave the safety of the big boys and venture into the no man’s land of the personal blog? How do you separate the wheat from the chaff and find a recipe that actually works? You can often tell how much work a writer has put in by the level of detail they go into: if they have indicated how many people it serves, or where to find unusual ingredients, suggested possible tweaks and credited their original sources, they have probably made the dish more than once. The photography is another handy clue. You don’t have to be Annie Leibovitz to provide a good idea of what the finished dish ought to look like.

Do a bit of digging as part of your prep. If you like the look of the rest of the site, the author’s tastes will probably chime with your own. And always, always, wherever the recipe is from, read it all the way through, even before you order the shopping. There is nothing more annoying than getting halfway through and then realising that you need a hand blender to finish the dish, just as the first guest arrives.

Above all, trust your instincts. If the cooking time seems far too short, or the salt content ridiculously high, it probably is, so keep an eye on that oven, check that casserole, keep tasting that sauce. As someone who once published a magic mince pie recipe without any sugar, I’m living proof that, occasionally, even the very best of us make mistakes. 

Felicity Cloake is the New Statesman’s food columnist. Her latest book is The A-Z of Eating: a Flavour Map for Adventurous Cooks.

This article first appeared in the 26 May 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Brexit odd squad