Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Socially Acceptable Stalking?

The following is an excerpt from my correspondence.

Everyone is a stalker on the internet, to some degree. No one wants to admit it though, because they don't want to view themselves as a stalker. Who does? It's a nasty label, and we have all experienced situations that border on, or even cross, the stalker line. So the bigger question is; At what point do we decide that this behavior is actually stalking?

So you may have looked at my profile, unbeknownst to me, and you chose not to message me so that I wouldn't have the impression that you are a stalker. Relax, people do this all the time. Why? Because it's easy, and can be done from the comfort of your own home. Real drive-by stalking of the past takes work, and most Americans are too lazy for that. Some journalists have claimed that this modern stalking behavior is voyeuristic, or at least borderline. My problem with that is such a word implies some sense of sexual gratification, which I feel is an over sensationalized attempt to play into the public's appeal of anything taboo and sexual. People are not browsing profiles for sexual gratification, a small percentage maybe, but not the majority of us.

My theory for why so many of us stalk the internet, is that it gives a false sense of empowerment. Being "in the know" is a common desire for any human. We crave to understand what is going on around us, even if it is trivial. Just look at tabloid sales for example. I have no facts or figures to wow you with, but it's pretty common knowledge that gossip sells. This is the whole core of what fuels traffic to sites like Facebook and MySpace. We have the power to know when our friends break up with their stupid boyfriends or shiftless girlfriends, before they even have a chance to tell us in person. Or we know what literary tastes someone has without having to take any effort to get to know them, like we used to do back in "the day". It's just society's next big step towards a collective consciousness. But it's not as scary as that sounds.

Why is it not so scary? Why do I feel it's a false sense of empowerment? Because it's a watered down version of the truth, of reality. The information is relatively unproductive knowledge, for the most part just like celebrity gossip, that is of little value for the pure fact that it is so watered down. Everything on these sites is filtered by every user to some degree. Since we only post what we are comfortable with the world knowing, it's only part of the story, part of that person. Some people seem to pour their heart out, but I can assure you that it's still only the tip of their personal iceberg. Most people will steer plenty clear of divulging anything that may incriminate them, or bring about unwanted scrutiny. It's only natural to not open your vulnerabilities to attack. We have to be aware of this when reading the information of others online. Since most of the info is of little significance or value, why do we waste our time? I'm not sure really, but maybe most people are really just unaware of how filtered all these wall posts and status updates are. This leads them to think the information is more valuable than it really is, which in turn gives a false sense of empowerment. For knowledge is power, but trivial knowledge really only produces trivial power.

Our ability and methods of communication are rapidly increasing in this new millennia, but it's a double edged sword. The easier it is for others outside our physical proximity to connect with us, the more we naturally have to guard what we divulge to them. Having a face to face, heart to heart, with a friend cannot be replaced with a Facebook status update. I'll be damned if I see the day anyway.

What I find a real test of will power, is avoiding the urge to seek out this unproductive knowledge. That false empowerment can become addicting, just like any form of power. Take for example, women who I have dated in the past. I use this example because it involves people who I have been very intimate with, but that intimacy is now something of the past, and I have a different dynamic with them than my relationship with some dude who shared a drawing class with me four years ago. Sure, I'm still friends with these women, and even friends on Facebook. I can hop over to their profile anytime I want, but I don't, unless I have a reason to send them a message or something. Even when I know they visit my profile (hacks on the internet can reveal a lot more info than people think) and rarely leave me a message or any other sign they've payed a visit, I still resist the urge to silently look at their profile.

Maybe I'm weird, cause it seems a lot of people visit their ex's profiles, but I think it's only because they crave information on them. That craving can be even greater when it's someone who you know as close as an old boyfriend or girlfriend. Don't get me wrong, it's completely normal to wonder how an old girlfriend or boyfriend is doing, especially if you parted on good terms. But there is a difference between sending them a letter or email asking how things have been, and scouring their profile reading and judging every wall post from the other people in their life. I feel like it's snooping in on them. It makes me question my motives for clicking on their profile in the first place, if I didn't go there to actually send them a message. I guess that I'd like to think that if there was anything important that I should know, that they would be sure to inform me.

Now here's a paradox for you: If I'm aware that everything posted is filtered information that is consciously displayed for everyone to see, then is it really snooping when you visit their profile, if nothing private or personal is there to read anyway? Maybe not. But, I am aware of the deception of one's own perception. I've heard too many stories about so and so leaving comments on someone's profile, when someone just dumped whoever. I've had to tell a few of my friends to stop scouring their ex's comments, looking for dirt. I'm sorry dear, but any floozie who leaves a comment on your ex boyfriend's wall is going to be suspect in your mind.

I guess that may just be the main reason I steer clear of such behavior; because I don't want to give my imagination any reason to make up stories that are based on its own false pretenses. Stories that may cause emotional responses and thought loops that are not only unfounded, but just waste mental energy. My imagination is wild enough, thank you very much. It's my responsibility to keep it in check.


Predo said...

I think I may be a part of the small percentage. I think people put themselves out there looking for this attention. If they were under the insane ideal that the info was completely safe, they wouldn't post! On the same note, why do we do this? I think it is the same as why we congregate together, stand in groups like a herd of cattle, or follow someone else instead of take our own risks. We, in general, want to belong, or be a part of something bigger, be accepted. Stalking, of course, is the risk that is so easy to do!

Eli said...

You're right, it's that same herd mentality that naturally pulls us to congregate together. However, when you are in a herd, you can see who else is in that herd around you. These social networks have created a new artificial herd, so to speak, in which we cannot always tell who is around us or who is watching.

If you put yourself out there in the midst of a crowd of people in the real world, you at least can see the audience you are presenting yourself to. Knowing the audience that surrounds you will be a factor in how you present yourself to them. If you are at a club surrounded by your contemporaries, then you may be more liberal and authentic in your actions. If you are surrounded by prudish church ladies, then you may hold yourself back a bit.

These new virtual social networks do not allow you to easily see who is around you, or who is actually watching you. For this reason I've found myself fascinated with how loosely the term "stalking" can be used.

I'm not sure if my post really poised any definite answers, but I have dug up a lot of new questions.