How did you know that...? Oops! *click click click*
Image source: Flickr.
Your index finger rapidly depresses the left click button of the mouse as your brain attempts to keep up by processing the images flickering across the screen. You quickly look up to ensure that the door has been safely shut and that a quick escape from the site in question is possible at all times - you wouldn't want anyone 'catching' you doing this. No. This is not pornography in the traditional sense of the word, but the era of Facebook and social networking. "Facebook stalking," a term that has been around since its inception has now become part of the everyday lingo of adolescents. The fundamental nature of its purpose and layout, without modification, actively encourages behaviour labelled as 'stalking.' So why do people choose to associate the natural activities that Facebook encourages with 'stalker,' a word with all sorts of negative connotations in our society?
Ilana Gershon's book, The Breakup 2.0, discusses the different ways that people interpret social behaviour, specifically the termination of relationships, via Facebook. For example, 'defriending' someone on Facebook can be interpreted as an aggressive act or one without a background of emotional drama depending on the person. I had been defriended by someone I considered a good friend after the first year of university and I had interpreted this as proof that she no longer wanted to have any kind of interaction with me. In spite of this, she had wanted to continue everyday civilities with me, causing me to reinterpret how others used Facebook. Gershon introduces a plethora of media ideology which cannot be labelled as universal - online social behaviour is not homogenous and may be interpreted differently depending on an individual's ideology. In Gershon's words, "people keep using Facebook and other new technologies in unexpected ways... We are a long way from standardizing how people use these technologies (198)." Even with Gershon highlighting the multiple discourses that exist towards media such as Facebook, I think most people would agree that looking up information on individuals who you would not normally be comfortable with speaking to in real life constitutes as 'Facebook stalking.' However, despite the hush-hush that surrounds the practice, Facebook stalking is not wrong and should not be stigmatized.
Stalking, a word that traces its origins to Middle English, was first used to describe the relationship between a hunter and his prey. In a sense, this word has not evolved too much as stalking has been gradually applied to the relationship between two humans, with one being unaware that he is being 'hunted.' Of course, we have all heard of infamous celebrity or murderous stalkers whose infatuation and obsession with their 'prey' have driven them to commit heinous crimes. With the advent of the internet and e-social networking, stalking with intent to harm has added a powerful tool to its retinue. However, stalkers still needed to put in substantial amounts of effort to secure enough information on their victims in the past. Previously, traditional, 'real life' stalking had to be utilized in addition to text-information retrieved online. But one feature of Facebook differentiates it from other social networking sites that have been popular in the past, such as Xanga or Myspace; it actively encourages participants to upload, tag, and comment on photos of themselves and their friends.
Photos are an incredible tool for both the user's friends and potential stalkers. You only need to open up a newspaper or style magazine to understand the power of the image - it serves to validate what text alone cannot achieve. As the saying goes, "seeing is believing." With hundreds to thousands of photos of one person accessible from a Facebook page, stalkers with the intent to harm have a treasure trove of information readily available to them. So, in a sense, Facebook even encourages the behaviour of 'stalking' in most of its regular users. In fact, a survey conducted by Adam N. Joinson of the University of Bath found that the majority of Facebook users used the site for "social searching (1028)" and also as a "surveillance tool (1035)," more socially and academically acceptable terms to replace the everyday jargon of "Facebook stalking." The everyday user then, not wishing to be aligned with the negative term 'stalker' recedes into his own space and tries to anonymously carry out his online activities.
Although Facebook gives stalkers the potential to retrieve vast amounts of information on any given individual, it is purely potential; the rest depends solely on the Facebook user. The social networking site allows users to control just how much information other people have access to on their own 'profile.' With these available controls in mind, users who choose to leave their profiles completely open to the public are unofficially agreeing to have their information accessed by strangers. Even if your profile is 'private' and only people you know can see your page, the amount of information that you put up on Facebook is entirely up to you. If you feel that your well-being is endangered by incriminating pictures, facts, or wall posts, simply delete or do not put them up in the first place. When I first started using Facebook, I remember putting up my cell-phone number in my contact info box. One night, I received a call from a strange number and befuddled, picked up my phone. It turns out that someone in my grade was wondering about a homework assignment, although I was not friends with him on a personal level. When I inquired as to how he retrieved my number, he simply replied, 'Facebook.' I subsequently removed my personal contact info, feeling uncomfortable and somewhat unsettled that I had received a phone call in such a manner. Users of social networking sites must realize that with actions (or no action on the part of privacy settings) come consequences, especially when the internet allows for users to be invisible.
Facebook stalking in itself is not wrong. Who would not want to know more information about someone they are interested in? It is ridiculous to assume that humans will not use resources available to them in order to satisfy curiosity, especially when the resource leaves no trace of being used. Most Facebook stalking that an ordinary user takes part in is neither extraordinary nor carried out with malicious intentions. Ultimately, Facebook is a resource that places power back into the user's hands. If fearful you are fearful of your personal privacy to the point of blaming Facebook, why join the site in the first place. Users must realize that they truly have the power to control how potential stalkers can access their information, so rather than blaming Facebook and 'stalkers' in the future, may wish to consider upping their personal privacy settings.
Gershon, Ilana. "The Breakup 2.0 - Disconnecting over New Media." Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2010.
Joinson, Adam N., "'Looking At', 'Looking Up' or 'Keeping up with' People? Motives and Uses of Facebook." CHI 2008 Proceedings `08 (2008): 1027-1036