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Are We All Facebook Stalkers?

July 9th, 2012

Ross Slutsky

Facebook seems to tap into a common desire for people to feed their curiosity about others. However, has Facebook really turned all of us into stalkers? And, if everyone is a stalker, does the term stalker still have any meaning?

As a 21-year-old college student, I often hear my friends refer to their online behavior as “Facebook stalking.” When they use this term, they mean a wide array of social networking activities such as looking at other people’s likes, statuses, comments, and, photos. One of my friends defined Facebook stalking as “the use of Facebook for acquiring information that is not obvious, and, if publicly revealed, would make the holder of said information look creepy.” In other words, if you would not be comfortable revealing information about someone, you should not acquire that information in the first place.

While that could be an effective rule of thumb for personal conduct, it’s not one that many people seem to abide by. All of my friends admit to being “Facebook stalkers.” They admit that they have looked at the information of people they don’t know very well (or in some cases don’t know at all) on many occasions. But is anyone to wag a finger at them for this?

While it would usually be creepy to look at the Facebook profile of a complete stranger, what if they have tons of mutual friends and shared interests?

Even when you are “friends” with someone on Facebook, what rights does that afford you in terms of access to their information? There are no right answers, and different people have reached different conclusions on this subject. Yet most people are still nonetheless referring to themselves self-deprecatingly as “Facebook stalkers.”

Are they truly stalkers? If so, this planet contains hundreds of millions of stalkers. Social information technologies have blurred and complicated many of the cultural norms about how people learn about each other.

Think about the connotation of stalking prior to the existence of Facebook.

Stalking once unambiguously referred to a gross violation of individual privacy in which an individual physically tracked a victim in order to collect information and/or impose on the victim the sense that his or her security was in jeopardy. Being a stalker meant expending a considerable amount of time and energy into surveilling and/or harassing someone.

On the other hand, “Facebook stalking” consists of an individual simply sitting in front of a computer screen, clicking a mouse a few times, and effortlessly examining information that a Facebook user has physically placed on the website where other people can see it. While Facebook’s privacy settings are far from perfect, all users basically have the ability to control the level of access other people have to their profiles.

However, one of my roommates pointed out that many Facebook users post to Facebook with the expectation that what they post will only be viewed by their friends. Hence, he believes that when people look at the information of people they do not know well they are breaking from proper Facebook etiquette.

Others (including this author) have argued that given that people have privacy options on Facebook, it can be acceptable to look at the information of others so long as the information is used in a non-maleficent way. For example, if you get a girl’s number at a party but did not get to know her very well, I would argue that it is ok to check her “likes” to get a sense of whether or not the two of you have anything in common.

If we have similar tastes in music, film, and literature, that could be an indicator that the two of us will be compatible. On the other hand, if she is a fan of the Westboro Baptist Church or of the group that infamously prayed for the death of President Obama, I can erase her number and never think about her again.

Admittedly, by doing what I’ve just described, I would be breaking the Facebook stalking rule described above. I wouldn’t be comfortable telling a girl that I checked out her “likes” and that we like the same bands. However, I see nothing wrong with using Facebook as a vetting process in the manner I’ve just described. I can steer my conversations with her toward film without any reservations and I like to think that that just makes me an effective Facebook user rather than a Facebook stalker.

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