Social media and numerous followers is status and therefore fungible.
One of the most luxurious guilty pleasures made possible by social media is methodically working your way through a new acquaintance’s profile, noting years of bad haircuts, weight gain and loss, and changes in job, partner and political views.
After all, you reason to yourself after 90 minutes’ concerted scrolling takes you to the status from New Year’s Eve 2013: if they really didn’t want you to see, they would have deleted it.
Discussing social media in person is gauche at the best of times – my rule of thumb is to never make explicit reference to any post more than 24 hours old and, when possible, to act as though I’ve been made aware of a recent holiday or break-up via clairvoyance or extreme empathy.
But it is all too easy to betray your presence on your target’s profile by accidentally liking a post, thus prompting a notification exposing you as a creep.
No one likes the ping of that tell-tale heart: “X liked your post from May 2016” (unless X is your crush, in which case it’s an unmistakable come-on). It says: “Don’t mind me, just really digging into your content.” Or: “I am very interested in your old haircuts.” Or: “Yes, this is how I am spending my Saturday night.”
The older the posts, the higher the stakes become. You’ve essentially been caught out creeping: the digital equivalent of making eye contact with someone you’re watching through binoculars, if those binoculars also reached through time.
One ex-girlfriend followed and promptly unfollowed me on Twitter at least three times after our break-up, prompting a notification each time. It got to the point where I would reply to ask if it was intentional that time. It never was.
But it happens to the best of us, and also my ex-girlfriend. If you accidentally like a post, you have a couple of options, depending on your relationship with your quarry and the speed with which you realise your mistake. (None of these options include quickly unliking it and crossing your errant, clumsy, treacherous fingers in the hope they won’t get the notification, because they absolutely will.)
What to do next
If you have a personal brand that can carry off “irreverent” or “good-humoured troll”, you could go for critical mass. Like a lot of increasingly older photos, then when your friend messages you with “wtf” or “???”, reply with “lmao” or something that communicates your unambiguous, deliberate levity.
But until platforms step up and take responsibility for the social anxiety they enable and introduce a bespoke “creeping” mode, the best strategy is prevention. If your target’s profile is public, this is as straightforward as simply logging out of your own account – should your finger slip, you’ll be prompted to give your username and password before any damage can be done.
Browsing private profiles is typically more rewarding, but also more fraught. On the Twitter mobile app, this means scrolling left-handed, on the opposite side to the favourite button perilously included on every tweet.
Then dig in. As the adage goes: take nothing but screenshots, leave nothing but footprints that only Mark Zuckerberg can see.