You have to ask a version of the two primary questions pertaining to behaviour 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. I know I will. 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 woman 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 someone, 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.
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 poison pen letters, 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 privacy is you.
Perhaps the question, then, is what are you looking for?
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 girl. 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 usually friendly people 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 behaviours 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.