I follow my ex-boyfriend across four different platforms and know the name of his new girlfriend’s sister. Is this stalking?
You ask a version of the two primary questions pertaining to behavior online: am I being gross? Or, more commonly, is someone being gross to me? The answer in both cases is usually yes, since the internet, if it has done anything, has liberated our grossest instincts, and I salute your attempt to police yours.
Stalking, however, is a big word for something most of us do in some form. One of these days, a clever hacker – or someone at Facebook – will figure out a way to release our browsing histories and we will all die of shame. This record of where we go in our minds when we think no one is looking is as close to a document of our unfettered subconscious as man has ever come: the thought spirals, the non-sequiturs, the weird desires and creepy interests as expressed through the websites that cater to them.
And the stalking. People have always obsessed over their exes, or over famous people they see on TV. The difference these days is that the entire online world is set up to externalize, nourish and amplify these obsessions and this is where things can get tricky. When I was a kid and some way into my 20s, “stalking” (in the context I think you mean it) meant hitting 1471 on your landline phone when you got home to see who’d last called, or doing real-world things like finding out what the subject of your obsession was into and then deciding to be into it too. It left almost no footprint and it was also very boring. As a result, it burnt out relatively quickly.
Not so now. There are endless avenues to stoke and nurture a broken heart, or a vengeful one, or merely to entertain one during the off hours after lunch. The question, in the case of low-level obsessive interest, is who is the injured party? Assuming you’re not gearing up to send his new girlfriend a poison pen letter, what is the cost of your “stalking”? And the answer, of course, is that in this particular scenario, the main casualty of your assault on his privacy is you.
Perhaps the question, then, is what are you looking for? If you want to reassure yourself his new girlfriend is a loser, or that he is a loser, or that, if you’re at the wallowing stage, you yourself are a loser, all of this seems to me the natural fall-out from a break up and will in all likelihood pass.
If, on the other hand, it’s not purely about the breakup, then it might merit closer attention. There is something addictive about deep-diving into the online lives of others, not least because most of us know we shouldn’t be doing it. I’ve done it myself, falling down a rabbit hole on Facebook for minutes at a time, only to look up and find myself paging through seven-year-old photos of some guy I went to school with, including the album taken at his parents’ golden wedding anniversary. What the hell is that?
It is partly voyeurism. It is partly an odd kind of tourism. And it’s partly – it must be – insecurity; mining for deficits to tell myself my own life is better. When I find myself in these places, I come to, blinking, and hastily shut down the window. Then I think about unfollowing whoever it is I’ve been looking at. They’re rarely exes. They’re usually harmless people from my deep background whose lives fascinate me because they’re so different from my own. I don’t know what to call this. It isn’t stalking, but it isn’t entirely innocent either. It’s a sign that my interest isn’t altogether wholesome that I would be mortified if they found out.
These behaviors aren’t new, and I suspect they will never go away; comparing our lives to the lives of others is part of what it is to be human. But we have never lived in a time when there is so much opportunity to gorge ourselves on each others’ intimate details, and just as public health advertisements target “social drinkers” who don’t think they have an alcohol problem, so it might be useful to remind ourselves that there is a line and we should be aware of not crossing it.
A bit of recreational snooping is fine, but know when to cut yourself off. Put down your phone, leave the empty room, and go be with the human beings who love you.
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010