Human beings are starting to become really creepy. Voyeuristic tendencies have always run rampant in our DNA, but the advent of social media networking sites prove just how nosy we’ve become. The proof of our voyeuristic tendencies lies within the hours we spend on twitter and Facebook, following users who don’t follow us back, browsing profiles of mere acquaintances pondering for hours whether or not it would be prudent to send them a request…ever had an awkward moment where somebody tells you something about themselves and you have to act like you are really surprised but of course you’re not surprised because you’ve been checking their profile every day for the last week and know everything there is to know about them? I’m not talking about voyeurism in the traditional sense that we derive sexual pleasure from creeping on people’s SNS profiles/walls all the time, but we definitely derive some weird/awkward/potentially harmful pleasure out of gawking at pictures of people we hardly know, used to know, or want to know for hours on end. We laugh off our weird obsession with following people and say “I’m such a Facebook stalker hahahaha” or “So is it bad I was like totally stalking the profile of the guy I met last Friday at the game to see if he had a girlfriend?” — the justifications endless. I’m not out to ask the question, “which came first, the internet or the stalker?” I’m here to talk about how we’ve always been, well, creepy, when it comes to our interpersonal relationships and that media is now making it a lot easier.
Social media has definitely changed the landscape of our relationships; it has eradicated the geographical barriers of privacy. Whereas once stalking was reserved for the (presumably) criminally insane, it is now utilized (in varying degrees) by millions of SNS users. Once again, I’m not referring to stalking in illegal terms necessarily, it can also be used in reference to somebody looking through all of their best friend’s photo albums online (all 147 of them). What really got me interested in this subject is not only knowing avid “Facebook stalkers” (who I also like to call girls), but was the discovery of Tweetstalk. Tweetstalk is a social media tool that allows people to stalk people’s profiles on twitter without having to follow them. I found this very interesting that 1) this app exists anyways because relationships on Twitter do NOT have to be mutual and 2) that the name of the app itself is referring to the tendency users of technology have to silently stalk people.
In “Why Facebook Breeds Voyeurism” a user named Rachel deleted her Facebook account because she recognized the tendency she had to wasting time stalking people online. Stephen Chukumba then theorized that Facebook allows users to take part in “mass social voyeurism“. Chukumba’s definition implies that Facebook makes people voyeurs because they can “anonymously sit and watch people broadcast their lives to the world.” Chukumba also touches upon what I think the cause of Facebook stalking is, people wanting to rejoice in other people’s misery, or decay at somebody else’s success. Relatively, Facebook stalking is harmless; you find out that your ex-boyfriend has a new girlfriend and (it sucks) but she has flawless skin and a great body, so you look at all of her pictures wondering if you had had her skin he would have stayed with you (pathetic, but not altogether not normal).
So we see that anonymity has become huge in social networking. In the case of Facebook, it seems to be a by-product of the site itself; you know users, and through interactions with those users you may find other users that you don’t necessarily know but you can stalk with ease. Nancy Baym talks about the prevalence of anonymity with respect to honesty in her book, Personal Connections in the Digital Age. While Baym is talking about user participation in social networking sites, as opposed to people who are purposefully stalking user profiles, what she says about anonymity is applicable to both situations: she talks about the “sense of safety” in anonymous sites (116); she found that anonymous users tend to be “socially anxious and lonely” (116); from a psychological standpoint this makes sense; it would seem that the people who spend so much time stalking other people’s profiles or walls probably spend more time on the computer than talking to them in real life. In fact, that’s what makes the whole cyberstalking thing so creepy; it wouldn’t be that out of the ordinary to talk to somebody who goes to the same school as you, works at the same place that you do, etc, but when replacing mere introductory conversation with hours of Facebook stalking it begs to be asked what has been changed in our interpersonal relationships? Why do we feel more secure now stalking somebody’s profile that we kind of know as opposed to saying hi, or mentioning that you have mutual friends if you ever see them in person.
I think Baym hits this point when she talks about the ambiguity of the word “friend” in reference to SNS sites. Baym says that because “friends in SNS can be strangers, admirers, confidants, co-workers, family, and a host of other relationship types, yet all be called the same thing on the site, it triggers inevitable confusion (145).” It is this ambiguity in the nature of who is truly a friend and who is a mere acquaintance that helped spawned the term “Facebook stalking”; if you were restricted to only being able to connect with people that were without a doubt your real life best friends, then browsing their profiles wouldn’t exactly be stalking. Stalking is reserved for people who “account for the behaviors of “friends” they barely know” (146.)
This also came up in the movie Life 2.0 which detailed the habits of 3 chronic Second Life users. One user decided to delete his female avatar Ayya. When Ayya was saying goodbye to her friends in Second Life, one other avatar was commenting on how upon meeting Ayya she just knew she was a girl and immediately had a strong bond with her. It is this situational irony that simultaneously makes us laugh and pity the poor avatar. This avatar was completely deceived by somebody because anonymity online is so easy; it helps us create fake identities, and helps us creep on the identities of others without them knowing. We laugh off stalking or the stupidity of others who’ve been duped by online liars, but is that okay? Baym states that the “norms that guide which media people use and for what purposes are still unclear” (149). We think online stalking is acceptable, but will it always be? Baym says that as societies,”we will surely reach an operational consensus on these matters (149)” but I’m still not so sure.