The Unbearable Lightness of Internet Stalking

To briefly revisit a lesson from high school English, “dramatic irony” describes a situation in which the reader knows what’s going to happen to a character but the character doesn’t. It’s a tension that makes for great literature and art. And it’s the closest example I could think of to describe the situational discomfort of having to face someone who I’ve already internet stalked.

Just as a reader is one step ahead of a character because she possesses more information than say, Hamlet, so is the data-hoarding internet stalker. I usually do enough Googling to learn some stats that I’ll later have to pretend to not know in the course of face-to-face interaction. Unable to pack this problem into a single term, we will call this ‘”the unbearable lightness of internet stalking” until you come up with something better.

The context of this situation is part of the larger intersection of technology and human relationships that has long fascinated me.  The deep ocean of data available on the internet allow us to learn a lot about someone — and even communicate extensively with him — without ever talking to him in person. It’s the stuff of online startups, like my friends HO’s Umbel, which is designed to give people more control over internet searches of their identities. It’s also the stuff that can start relationships. A 2009 survey by Zagats found that more than 50% of respondents admitted to Googling their dates.

My problem is the human interaction that comes AFTER you learn or know information that you obtained in a slightly surreptitious but a let’s-face-it-we-all-do-it-kind-of-way. I am almost ALWAYS AWKWARD when I interact in person for the first time with someone I’ve searched or @ messaged on Twitter a lot. Two ways to think about this, both which make me act stupid.

1.) When I am the internet stalker: My fandom of a Google or Twitter @ subject leads to paranoia that the subject knows that I’ve been keeping up too closely with his feed because of my curiosity and interest. (This is why I was so strange everytime I saw Brian Stelter at SXSW, even though my friends say he is totally a normal, nice, dweeby dude.)

2.) When someone else has internet stalked me: This is usually revealed in a reference to something I tweet about a lot (like how someone saw a bacon-flavored something and thought of me). My response is always initial delight. “YOU LIKE BACON TOO? IT IS SO DELICIOUS, RIGHT?” But then, if I marinate on this too long, I start asking the vexing larger questions. Is it socially acceptable yet to reveal your stalkerdom? Maybe I feel weird on both ends of this situation because it’s not.

I quizzed my friend (over Gchat, natch). Let’s call her Megan:

Megan: I was very taken aback when I went on a date with someone who candidly told me that he had read my Twitter feed and then referenced things I had tweeted about like two months ago.

Me: What did it make you think?

Megan: I thought, “Why doesn’t he have the social skills to pretend he didn’t do that?” Because I had also stalked him too but I wasn’t going to admit it.

Me: So the reveal of it is somehow socially unacceptable.

Megan: Yeah… it’s almost as if you are exposing someone. Or forcing them to be intimate with you on this level you aren’t ready for. Because they have this info about you that you didn’t give them, but also, it’s all on a public forum, so why shouldn’t they know it?

And to use Hamlet once again, there’s the rub. Most of us admit to doing this sort of searching of near-strangers, and certain social media tools like Instagram allow us to go as far as seeing someone else’s day through their eyes. But I still can’t face some of my Twitter friends in person without feeling like a total dork/loser/insane person. When will this not be weird? When will internet stalkerdom be socially bearable?