By JESS ZIMMERMAN
Thanks to the Internet, we now have a host of new ways to offend, enrage, misinterpret, creep out, or alienate people. In the Tangled Web, we field your questions about how to be a decent human online.
Should I confess I’m a social media stalker?
I have a friend who lives in a different city, so our main interactions happen online or via social media, where he is quite active. I really dig this guy—and yeah OK, I might also sort of probably have a THING for him—and so I make a point of reading his personal social media feeds in full. As a result, I sometimes find myself in a situation where my friend shares a piece of news in email that he’s already shared in social media, and I’m left trying to figure out whether to admit that I know it already. What is actually a reasonable amount of info to know about someone with whom you are mostly online friends, and who’s active on Facebook and Twitter? I guess I’m wondering which is less creepy: owning up to the fact I “stalk” his social media, or pretending like I don’t know stuff he’s already shared?
This is a complex, interesting question that deals with some of the most central challenges of private and public interaction. The answer is, “About 60/40.”
Oh, you wanted more than that? Well, let’s start with a short meditation on what it means to be “creepy.” If someone reads all your tweets in a forest and you don’t know they’re doing it, are they a creep? Or does it become creepy only when they like every single one of your Instagram photos, or comment on year-plus-old Facebook posts, or follow all your Twitter friends? Given that we’re talking about information you chose to share publicly or semi-publicly, I’d argue that it becomes creepy when the person’s motivation goes from “they want to know about you” to “they want you to KNOW they know about you.”
This guy is putting stuff on social media with the assumption that interested parties will read it. Imagine that he’s an author writing for publication. You are essentially a very, very thorough reader, maybe even a re-reader. Perhaps you’re the kind of reader who is at the bookstore at midnight on release day, wearing the costume of your favorite character. These are all things authors appreciate, in theory, largely because they don’t have to deal with it directly in practice. Fans only become creepy when they start demanding something from the author—insisting that she work their OTP slash into the story, sending her pictures of their sexy costumes, cornering her to force her to clear up plot points and disputes. (Although I did once write to Douglas Adams to ask him to settle an argument about which was his best character, but I was 14, and it was an actual paper letter, and it’s obviously Ford anyway, and … OK, I think you get the idea.)
So: “stalking” his profiles is a little sketchy, but not really creepy, and honestly? We all do it. Once you let on that you read everything he puts out there, though, it starts to shade into creepiness, because you’re no longer just satisfying curiosity, you’re asking him to deal with the extent of that curiosity explicitly and directly. On the other hand, you don’t want to pretend like you don’t read his social media at all—that’s silly! He knows you guys are Facebook friends! Hence, I recommend a balance: around 60 percent “Tell me more!” and 40 percent “Oh yeah, you mentioned that on Twitter! How’s it going?” (The follow-up question lets the conversation keep moving.)
Why not 50/50? Well, leaving aside the question of creepiness entirely: Nobody wants to feel repetitive, self-centered, or boring, and piping up too often with “You said that already on Twitter,” runs the risk of making him feel that way.
And don’t forget, as an active social mediasketeer, he’s probably already doing an internal calculation himself, which goes something like this: “How much should I talk about things I already said on social media and how much should I assume she read it already? Which is more egotistical, repeating my own stories or acting like everyone must be diligently reading and memorizing everything I post?” (The answer is, “About 60/40.”)
People I don’t actually know keep Gchatting me. These are people who have emailed me once, or were once on a group email that I was on, but that I’ve never really spoken to in real life. This is not OK, right? How do I a) respond, and b) keep this from happening without just being away/invisible all the time?
I polled some friends about ways they use Gchat and what other form of communication they think it’s most analogous to. Here’s a sampling:
“Like dropping by someone’s dorm room.”
“I work from home, and Gchat is how I communicate with my co-workers. So for me, Gchat is sort of like my cubicle.”
“It’s like texting in that it interrupts what you are doing and demands your attention.”
“Somewhere between a phone call and a friend dropping by unannounced.”
“It reminds me of passing notes in class, as it mixes intimacy with a sort of secrecy or privacy.” “I use it exactly like the phone. It can be a formal communication with a coworker or boss. It can be a meaningful chat with a friend or a flirty talk with my girl.”
“To me it’s just like faster email.”
In other words, opinion varies on the social rules of Gchat. For some people it’s very intimate, something you only do with friends, like an unannounced visit. For others, it’s a completely reasonable way to get in touch with a co-worker, professional contact, journalistic source, or whatever. And for other people it’s like party small talk—a good way to turn acquaintances into friends. That’s means it’s entirely reasonable for you to be weirded out by people chatting you out of the blue, but due to the fact that we don’t all agree on how intimate or formal a chat conversation is, you need to recognize that they’re not necessarily being inappropriate. That of course makes this harder to deal with because you can’t just write them off as “rude people doing uncool things.” On the other hand, they are still pushing a perfectly valid personal boundary.
So how do you maintain a Gchat experience that’s as private as you want it to be, while dealing with the fact that any sufficiently large contact list will include some people with a different attitude? Switch your status to permanently “busy,” but let your good friends know that you’re still willing to talk when your icon is red. That means you’ll be visible, but you can count on Google to gently admonish the people trying to contact you (“X is busy, you may be interrupting”), which means they might think twice and send an email instead. If near-strangers still contact you, complete the conversation politely but not warmly, and then block them. (For the less-obsessive Gchat user: You hover the mouse over their name, then click the down arrow in the lower right corner of the box that appears.) Don’t feel bad about doing it—they’ll never know, they just won’t see you online anymore. That means you get to enforce your preferred level of intimacy and privacy, and they’re not tempted to enlist you in their more casual, public idea of what chat should be.
I actually wonder whether Google’s recent rebranding of chats will change this. As part of their continued and desperate effort to nice guy us all into loving Google Plus, they’ve started calling all chats “hangouts,” and have changed the way they are archived. I wonder if people might become slowly less inclined to use “hangouts” to get in touch with people they barely know.
Jess Zimmerman has been making social blunders on the Internet since 1994. Most of her current interpersonal drama takes place on Twitter(@j_zimms).