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Should you feel guilty about stalking someone on Facebook?
On the one hand, why would you? Facebook gives users the option to hide their profiles entirely, and if someone elects to do the opposite—to place a few photos and a few posts beneath the public spotlight—then that someone has accepted the possibility of stranger-gazes. Here is the difference between real-life stalking and online stalking: Social media users choose what to reveal about themselves. There’s no such thing as a Peeping Tom on a nudist beach. Moreover, the fact that so many people participate in Facebook stalking indicates that society at large has made peace with the behavior.
On the other hand, why wouldn’t you? Take this scenario: You are pouring through the vacation photos of a person you don’t really know, and that person is standing right behind you, scrutinizing every mouse click. Yes, you would feel uncomfortable. It’s inarguably creepy to obsess over the digital record of someone that you’ve never talked with. The fact that an action embarrasses you should force you to reevaluate that action. In the case of Facebook stalking, reevaluation reveals shame—we are ashamed to own up to the covert operations that command our late-night laptop screens.
At some point, I suppose that I should define this term, “stalking,” that lies at the middle of the controversy. In my self-created Dictionary of Online Jargon, “stalking” someone on Facebook means “scrolling through the photos and posts of someone’s profile in order to gain information that you don’t already know about that person.” You can stalk a complete stranger. You can stalk a best friend.
Stalking seems to have a variety of purposes—digging up dirt on a roommate, determining the romantic status of someone you met last weekend, and so on. In fact, people stalk out of the single unspoken motivation to assess the desirability of others.
Judging physical attractiveness is the most obvious form of assessment. Cue the beach pictures, the ten-point scale (“That’s ridiculous, he/she is clearly a seven…”), the objectification, and the inevitable disagreement.
However, we also grade and judge people that we have no romantic feelings for. When you scroll through newsfeeds, you see pictures of friends at parties, friends on vacation, friends with other friends, friends at parties on vacation with other friends, and the bright stream of images provides the raw material from which you determine a person’s location on the coolness spectrum. “Wow,” you think. “That guy/girl goes out way more than I realized.”
These judgments shape our consciousness effectively because we don’t reach them through rigorous analysis. You don’t scrutinize a changed profile picture and find that this offering is 123 percent more attractive than the last one. Instead, you extract a vague feeling, and this feeling informs your worldview—not just of that person, but also of all the people in that person’s circle.
You also inform your own self-worth. We create a mental hierarchy in order to locate ourselves somewhere in that hierarchy. Although stalking relies on the existence of other profiles, the essence of the act is egocentrism.
Sometimes you need to examine others to establish your own identity. If you wear a toga to a formal event, there’s nothing wrong with looking around, counting the number of black ties, and sprinting to the nearest bathroom.
However, the stalking that I have described exceeds this level. Facebook stalking is hardly analytic. You slip into the action, and your major motivation relates to insecurity, not a conscious desire to improve your lifestyle through exposure to others. Returning to the original question, I do believe that you should feel guilty about Facebook stalking because the behavior caters to vanity.
I also worry about the numerical grading that stalking encourages. We laugh about ones and tens, but by participating in this joking, we perpetuate superficial definitions of personal worth. If you spend enough time in an environment that repeats a humorous understanding of people as numbers, then, at some point, that philosophy seeps into your serious thinking. You demean other people based on unimportant factors, and you demean yourself.
There’s a reason that Mark Zuckerberg didn’t call his website “Soulbook.” Facebook stalking accentuates the qualities of shallowness and self-doubt that mark Facebook at its worst. We need to avoid this sort of behavior if we want to grow into us at our best.
Sam Danello ’18 is a Crimson editorial writer living in Grays Hall.
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