Nineteen-year-old Nattie Rogers spends hours every day chatting with, and pining for, her beloved Clem -- even though she's never met him. Via their virtual correspondence, he seems to Nattie to be a witty, elegant gentleman.
But in reality, he's a brutish redhead reeking of musk. Or is he?
Such deception may seem to be a byproduct of the digital age. UrbanDictionary.com -- the comprehensive guide to the vernacular of our time, of course -- defines "catfishing" as "the phenomenon of Internet predators fabricat[ing] online identities and entire social circles to trick people into emotional/romantic relationships"; the 2010 documentary Catfish and its subsequent MTV series of the same name present these scenarios to viewers' shock and dismay on a weekly basis. It would seem, then, that the advent of social networking, online dating, and sexting is to blame for ushering in an era fraught with more panic and anxiety over these kinds of uncomfortable virtual-romantic entanglements than ever before.
However, Nattie and Clem prove that there's actually nothing new about "catfishing." The two are the central characters in Ella Cheever Thayer's novel Wired Love: A Romance of Dots and Dashes -- which was published in 1879. (Or, as other sources suggest, perhaps it was 1880.)
Wired Love is a tale of virtual romance, mistaken identities, and, yes, even mild sexting (as Clem dreamily remarks, "I hope sometime we may clasp hands bodily as we do now spiritually, on the wire -- for we do, don't we?"). Most of Nattie and Clem's correspondence takes place over telegraph wires, as the two are both operators who work in distant towns. Their conversations, though, and the emotional attachment that ensues, may feel eerily familiar to those who have embarked on an online relationship in the modern world -- even the abbreviated phrases they use and idealized fibs about their appearances. As the Huffington Post pointed out last week, Wired Love "could have been written today."