The first step is to admit you have a problem, right?
Well, my problem is Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and Google. I blame the oversharers, the ranters and ravers, and that one dude from high school who lost a shit ton of weight and is now semi-attractive. But my problem doesn’t stop there – I don’t need to know you yet to stalk you. You like my friends’ status? Consider yourself stalkable. You’re tagged in a picture with someone who happens to pop up on my news feed and you look somewhat interesting? Yep, I’m stalking you. I met you briefly at a party? You guessed it, into Google you go!
No matter what I do to fight the urge, I tend to find myself falling keyboard first into this rabbit hole of useless information.
From ex-boyfriends to former teachers, future employers, and hot baristas on a Saturday afternoon, I have this intense urge to know EVERYTHING about people – what they look like now, if they’re married, if they’re college educated, if they like cats or dogs or if they’re worthy of a second date (and oftentimes, a first). Before the Digital Age, people could walk in and out of your life and that would be that. If you saw them again, it would be fate; if you heard news about their personal life, it would be via word of mouth. But now we create such immersive profiles of ourselves for the world to see that it’s almost impossible to remain anonymous.
So that brings me to my next question: Would we have this same urge to discover such mundane information about strangers and acquaintances if it wasn’t so readily available? I’d like to think I wouldn’t be lurking in alleys or peering through windows to get this type of information – I hope, I really do hope. It’s not like I’m sitting on the edge of my seat waiting for someone to post something (not all the time, anyway). In fact, sometimes it’s Facebook’s news feed that helps plant the seed.
Take this scenario for example: I open up Facebook to see that so-and-so has posted a picture or a status or whatever. Keep in mind that in this particular example, so-and-so is an acquaintance from high school. We’ve been Facebook friends since 2004-ish, yet haven’t talked since 2003. I’ve seen her “I’m engaged ” posts along with one that said “we’re pregnant” and all the pictures that went along with them. I didn’t seek those out. She shared them with me – with us, the Facebook community. I mean those who share this type of information must realize what they’re doing, right? So I’ve witnessed these life moments over the past 10 years and I’m sitting on the bus and she posts something mundane like “Baby #2 just took a poop … so stinkin’ cute.” And, for some reason, as I shake my head in disgust, I feel compelled to view the comments, so I go to her page. Then I go to her photos to see how much her kids look like the little girl I went to school with and I realize that I’ve kind of watched them grow up (FYI, I’ve never met these kids). I also see that another acquaintance has posted on her page. So I click that person’s name. I see where this person is living and working now, check out their photos. Noticing that we have a friend in common, I explore that person and try to figure out how they know each other. And before I know it, an hour of my life has passed. It’s like a little treasure hunt, except the treasure is useless information. Harmless, really, and totally unnecessary, yet still many of us do it.
News feed discoveries are what I call “accidental stalking,” but there’s also the type of stalking where I (or should I say “we”? – you know some of you do it too) actively seek out the information. You know, when you meet someone super attractive or just plain interesting? Could be a total stranger, a coworker, or a mutual friend. Doesn’t matter. They’ve intrigued us, and we want to know more. This is where Google comes in handy. Know only their first name and maybe where they work? Easy. The sole purpose of this search is really just to lead us in the direction of their respective social media profiles on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, or wherever. Oftentimes we may do this type of stalking together in order to help one another gather the necessary information about a crush, for example (this is a form of communal stalking). In these cases, there are a few main questions I personally like to have answered: 1. Does he have a girlfriend? 2. What are his friends like? 3. What does his ex look like? I’ll also venture off to Twitter to check out his skills with 140 characters and then to Instagram to see if it’s possible that the filters could make him look any hotter (usually the answer is a resounding YES). Again, harmless, but still stalking. And, yes, by admitting this I realize I will most likely remain single for the rest of my days.
This brings me to my final question: Where exactly is the line between harmless “crush research” and “psycho obsessive crazy person”? I realize that sometimes they’re mutually exclusive, but the majority of us mean no harm. I mean, it’s not like I’d show up at Zeitgeist just because my crush posted a status update saying he’s there. However, I do know people who have done this and I still consider them decent members of society.
But seriously, where do we draw the line? Some people stalk online to make themselves feel better about their lives. Others do it to make sure their date for Saturday isn’t a psychopath. Businesses do it to learn more about potential employees. But does that make it okay? It’s tricky because there are definitely scary stalkers out there with intentions that go beyond boredom and curiosity and into a realm I’m sure Law and Order: SVU has covered. And do we call our actions “stalking”? Or “creeping”? Or “actively observing”? I don’t know that the name makes much of a difference, since anyone could start out a casual stalker and turn into something much scarier.
What I do know is that the stalking I’m talking about can sometimes make for very awkward moments. Like that one time I researched (sounds better than stalked, right?) a mutual friend, saw them at a party and started talking to them about birthdays. Without hesitation I said, “Oh, so you’re a Sagittarius too, right?” before having ever made our friendship on Facebook official … oops! Or when I found out that LinkedIn gives you a list of who’s been looking at your profile after having “researched” a number of people who came into the gym I worked at. In the words of Homer Simpson “doh!”
There was also this one time I was communal stalking with my best friend and my hand accidentally grazed the like button on someone’s profile picture. I tried to be cool about it, but ended up borderline hyperventilating. This wasn’t just any profile picture, it was from five years ago! That means there were dozens of pictures before it that I had to sift through to get to this particular one. That’s a stalker’s worst nightmare because now the jig’s really up. Sure, I could’ve unliked the picture, but the person was still going to receive a notification letting them know that I was looking at their profile pictures from five years ago. I’ve been on the receiving end of these types of notifications and it is very obvious that it took quite a bit of effort to get to that image. Needless to say, in these moments my heart often drops because I’ve been outed and there really is no turning back. The only thing worse than this is accidentally friending someone you’ve been researching – that stirs up a certain kind of panic I hope never to experience again.
Whether you want to admit it or not, you’ve probably done some form of digital stalking. I think it’s in our nature. It’s like watching reality TV or slowing down on the freeway to see a car accident. Sometimes we just can’t help but want to know more.
Call me psycho, call me a freak, but I know I’m not alone. Fellow digital voyeurs, you know who you are. In fact, some of you may have already googled my name or found me on Facebook or Twitter or whatever … it’s cool bro, no hard feelings. Because, at the end of the day, there’s nothing that makes us stalkers feel better about being the creeps that we are than meeting someone who says, “Oh yeah, I totally do it too.”