There are currently around 845 million Facebook and 300 million Twitter users, as well as millions of people holding accounts with other social networking websites such as Myspace, Formspring, Google+ and Tumblr, or, more likely, a combination of these, and a plethora of scarcely regulated dating sites. Each day an endless stream of photos, statuses and links are posted and viewed by people across the world, enabling almost anyone to find out what you’re getting up to. Although social networking sites are an extremely convenient way of keeping in contact with friends and family, sharing your work and keeping up to date with news and events, they are also making it increasingly easy for people to indulge their favourite guilty pleasure: stalking.
Since I joined Facebook on Sunday 17 August 2008 (which I can tell you so accurately thanks to the new Facebook timeline feature, which allows its users to see not only what their contacts are doing today, but also what they were doing on this day last year), I have had countless friend requests from strangers, complete with messages telling me that I am beautiful, and many requesting inappropriate photos or asking me to visit them in cities I didn’t know existed. I imagine many of you will have had friend requests of a similar nature, and often they are met with a similar response: “Oh, it’s okay, I didn’t accept him…besides, what’s the worst he could do? It’s only on Facebook.” It is only recently that I realised I am also guilty of making such excuses.
No amount of concern from my friends will make me see my online “stalkers” as anything less than hilarious and the reason for that is a concerning one: because I do it too. Last night I followed around 50 new Twitter accounts in an attempt to gain a greater readership for my articles; many of the people I followed returned the favour without questioning who I was and some ignored me altogether – but one person followed me back before sending me the following Tweet: “Hi, don’t think I know you, but new followers are always appreciated.” There are two things wrong with this. Firstly, the person in question was clearly happy for anyone to follow them, regardless of whether I was an axe-murdering, body-mutilating psychopath (I’m not); and secondly, I was more than happy to follow anyone back, regardless of whether they were an axe-murdering, body-mutilating psychopath.
An article written in The Guardian last month explained how cyber-stalkers are able to install various spyware apps on their phones which allow them to track the handsets they are connected to, as well as intercepting text messages and calls. Similar software is also being used to target people’s computers; installed remotely, often via an email attachment, the person using the spyware becomes privy to extremely sensitive information, most worryingly passwords, telephone numbers, addresses and real-time updates on the location of their victim. Not only does this allow the offender to commit an array of crimes, it also gives absolutely anyone with access to a mobile phone or the internet the ability to follow whoever they choose.
Absentmindedly visiting the online profiles of people you’ve never met can almost be excused. After all, in the main, it is harmless. However, many people allow their internet-obsession to perturb their every day lives. Love, Virtually, a recent documentary which aired on channel four, followed women as they embarked upon a mission to find a date online. This highlighted exactly how absorbed some people have become in their online lives: one woman admitted to having stopped a stranger on the street, convinced she knew them, before realising that the woman was in fact an old friend of her boyfriend whom she had been stalking online for several months.
It is evident that people are becoming increasingly unable to distinguish between their lives in the real world, and the virtual lives they create for themselves. Not only does this inhibit an individual’s ability to interact with their peers face-to-face, but excessive use of social networking sites has also been found to have strong links with depression and extreme cases of paranoia. The problem with sourcing all of your information from the internet is that you are often doing so without context. You might see that your boyfriend has been tagged in a photo on Facebook with that beautiful blonde he used to text all the time, but what you don’t know (because your secret stalking habits mean you can’t ask) is that she is a lesbian. Recent statistics show that collectively, people are spending 2.6 million minutes on Facebook each day; by spending so much time online, we are immersing ourselves in other people’s lives. We are becoming so concerned with what exactly that guy meant when he said he was “glad it’s the weekend”, and we are totally neglecting important parts of our lives: the real parts.
As the demand for social networking websites increases, people are spending more and more time on them, without realising that for much of the time, we are following the online words and actions of people we have never met and are never likely to meet. With the rise of social media, daily life is being conducted in an extremely public way, meaning that every small mistake we make, argument we have and less-than-flattering photograph we take is immortalised. Websites which were once an escape have become inescapable, and as we become ever-more obsessed with what people are doing online, we are becoming unhappier too. Of course there are endless benefits of social networking, especially as a tool to promote business; however, it is clear that users need to be careful. We need to minimise the amount of information we share on the internet, and stop seeing our creepy online stalkers as a joke. We need to remind ourselves that life online isn’t a substitute for life offline, and communication with real people in a real context is necessary. Above, all, I think we need to apply one simple rule to our online conduct: if we wouldn’t do it in real life, we shouldn’t do it online. I’m sorry, seasoned stalkers of cyber-space, but this means you’re going to have to stop spending hours following people you’ve never met, even if they’re famous (that doesn’t make it okay).