When Facebook Stalking Gets Dangerous

When one Elle writer went in search of an old flame, she fell prey to stalking his wife. And other risks of cyber-surveillance.

One thing that's so interesting about the whole "ex-and-social-networking" thing is the fact that we're working out the dynamic all the time. A "modern" problem, maybe - but then, so are the sorts of relationships it's based on. Two generations ago, people didn't make a common practice of building lives and homes - or just regularly sleeping with - others, then not having contact with them. Sure, it happened - but for the past thirty years, it's been commonplace. In fact, when you think about it, there was really only one generation that experienced The Ex Factor without the perils of social networking. And from here on out, that's going to be a reality of human dynamics.

In her article "Confessions of a Facebook Stalker," Corrie Pikul describes the process of tracking down an ex, Nick. While her tale is far from sordid - and I'd guess not unusual - it prompts her to investigate the phenomenon with experts, who advise people against waking up the sleeping dogs that are long-defunct relationships.

What if the profile-peeping gets out of hand, turning a quick glimpse into a prolonged stare? James Hambrick, PhD, a therapist at the Columbia University Clinic for Anxiety and Related Disorders, explains the quagmire of obsession. "By thinking about something over and over, you're legitimately feeling a little bit of relief. It may cause anxiety, but for some, that anxiety is preferable to feeling angry, sad, lost, and all those things they'd feel if that person was out of their life." The problem is that this relief can prevent us from climbing out for good. "It's very hard to let go of something as long as it's an active problem that you're churning over. What we often see from people trying to keep their heads above water is this idea of, ‘If I keep thinking about this person from different angles, if I keep taking in information about them, then I don't get upset that they aren't in my life anymore. Because in certain sense, they are."

In addition, as one author puts it, "Facebook offers potato chips of information-you get a tantalizing taste that somehow doesn't quite satisfy enough, and so you keep seeking a sensation of fulfillment, of being satiated...[It] offers the hope of certain knowledge, but rarely does one ever fully know for certain whether or not someone is actually flirting with your lover, whether or not your lover is actually being unfaithful…." And, apparently, it can lead to infidelity, The promise of the one that got away, the ready availability of contact info, the reawakening of old - and irresponsible - feelings are, says the piece, making old-flame cheating a modern scourge.

But the most interesting part of Pikul's account, for me, was her growing fixation on the ex's wife, whom she comes to admire with a zeal that begins to sound like a high-school crush. It bothers her boyfriend, too.

He seemed to feel that my interest in Nick's current status was natural, but as the weeks passed and I continued to make comments about the wife ("She makes it look so easy to be a working mom…she must make a lot of money…she works out every freakin' day!…isn't it great that she met her sister for lunch on Thursday? I wish my sister lived closer to us…"), he became increasingly disturbed. "Don't you think it's a little troubling that you do that?" he asked. He never told me to stop looking at her profile, but he did ask me to stop mentioning it. Finally, he said, "Yes, it sounds like she has a very nice life, but maybe you should focus a little more on your very nice life." It occurred to me that this stranger wasn't my friend or even my Facebook friend. What if she found out that I'd been stalking her-now the verb sounded creepy-and updated her status to read, "My husband's pathetic ex-girlfriend has been looking at my photos and reading my Wall. What a psycho!!!"? I'd be mortified. My partner was right: This was troubling. I was wasting energy.

But that, it seems, is one of the great pitfalls of this sort of thing: as much as romanticizing an old flame, doing the same with a stranger - who comes to embody all your insecurities and perceived failings, and really has nothing at all to do with you. We've all fallen into it, I think - I am much more prone to look up someone barely-remembered who rode my schoolbus than an old boyfriend. And then I feel super-creepy. But at the same time, it's all fiction. Not so long ago, I learned that someone - an ex's ex - had been cyber-stalking me to the point of obsession. My first thought was that this must be a pretty boring way to spend one's time, and that she'll find plenty of satisfyingly awful pictures, if that's her goal. But I didn't feel offended or weirded out - because it had nothing to do with me, And that should we ever meet, it'll have nothing to do with my fictional persona - whatever that might be, and a little part of me hopes it's much more sinister than my real one - because the two are not related. Should we be ashamed of these impulses? Maybe it's human to feel shame about any compulsion beyond our control. But realizing the boundary between reality and perception seems like a good means of keeping things under control.

Confessions Of A Facebook Stalker
[Elle]

[Image via Shutterstock]