A Tale of Mutual Cyberstalking

It's normal to obsessively cyberstalk your ex. But why do some of us obsessively cyberstalk our ex-lovers' new partners instead? I compulsively tracked my ex-boyfriend's girlfriend for months without really understanding my motivations for doing so — and it turns out she was following me back.

A year ago, I broke up with my long distance boyfriend and told him to get over me. Unnervingly soon after, he did.

Thanks to my job — and, fine, my voyeuristic personality — I'm a scarily adept cyber sleuth, so as soon as he told me he was seriously dating someone, I was on the case. It only took a few Facebook clicks to figure out her identity. I was hoping she would have a public Twitter and Facebook account; perhaps, fingers crossed, a frequently updated Tumblr. Instead, I uncovered the furtive hate-reader's ultimate treasure trove/Pandora's Box: my ex's new girlfriend was an actor on a popular TV show.

I was overwhelmed by all of the information at my fingertips. There were dozens of photos of her smiling at events and YouTube videos of her fans' favorite TV scenes. Oh, did I mention she had fans? Thousands of followers on Twitter, to be exact. She had a Wikipedia page, for god's sake. She was funny and clever on Twitter and often tweeted about feminism, even linking to the occasional Jezebel article.

What the fuck? She was dating my ex-boyfriend. Couldn't she let me have my feminism?

I was immediately hooked. At first, my stalking was synonymous with shit-talking her to my friends; I was the one who broke up with my ex, but I wasn't over our relationship, and I was hurt that he was falling in love with someone else so quickly. As time passed and I moved on myself, I stopped criticizing her but continued to keep tabs on her life. My obsession with Googling her and monitoring her various social media feeds felt almost compulsive; I didn't know why I was doing it anymore, or what I was getting out of the experience exactly, only that I didn't want to stop. It didn't help that she was so ridiculously stalkable, but I wasn't checking up on her because I was jealous. So why was I?

There are studies on stalking your ex; a recent survey found that 88 percent of people track their exes on Facebook. Katha Pollitt described the frenzied feeling perfectly in a New Yorker essay:

But at night, after my daughter was in bed, I would settle myself at the computer with a cup of coffee, and till one or two in the morning I would browse the Internet, searching for information about him. Except "browse" is much too placid and leisured a word - a cow browses in a meadow, a reader browses in a library for a novel to take home for the weekend. What I did fell between zeal and monomania. I was like Javert, hunting him through the sewers of cyberspace, moving from link to link in the dark, like Spider-Man flinging himself by a filament over the shadowy chasm between one roof and another. "Are you Webstalking him?" a friend in her twenties asked over coffee. I hadn't known there was a word for what I was doing.

But I didn't really care about what my ex was up to, because I had slowly started to let him go. Why wasn't I ready to do the same with his girlfriend?

Last August, my ex told me that he and his girlfriend had broken up. I felt relieved; not so much because he was single, but because I didn't have to cyber-spy on her anymore. I would no longer procrastinate by reading articles about her excellent sense of comedic timing or searching her name on Twitter when I was drunk. I was free!

Just kidding. I kept secretly stalking her. Not even to see if she and my ex were still talking, but because I was still curious to know what was going on in her life. Months had passed, and I was seriously dating someone new, but I wasn't ready to forget that my ex's ex existed. I realized that, oddly enough, I genuinely respected this person who I had been keeping semi-regular tabs on for nearly half a year; it was as if she was my friend instead of the target of my creepy curiosity. When they got back together shortly after, I felt almost justified: I had a reason to keep her in my life.

Here's where the story gets really bizarre: I met her a few weeks ago, when the three of us —me, my ex, and his girlfriend — decided to get coffee together. "You'll love her," he promised. ("I know," I wanted to say.) He was right: we bonded instantly, gushed about how happy we were to finally meet, and promised to make plans to hang out again the next time we were in the same city. I texted her later that evening to tell her once more how glad I was that we had finally come face to face. She said she felt the same, and then sent one more text: "real talk for a sec— now that we've met I think what I'm most excited for is being able to stalk you on twitter/Jezebel not in secret anymore…Oops..."

Hah! She had been stalking me! I felt triumphant, satisfied, and just the tiniest (okay, not the tiniest) bit smug. I wasn't ready to tell her that the stalking had been mutual. But we kept in touch, and eventually swapped our most embarrassing stalking anecdotes — she had once accidentally "liked" one of my Instagram photos and deleted her account so I wouldn't notice (I didn't), while I had forced one of my coworkers to unfollow her — and attempted to analyze the meaning behind our compelling attraction to one another.

I know it seems impossible — laughable, even — to claim that our mutual stalking had little to do with the person we had both loved. Of course, in the beginning, stalking her was a form of torturing myself for ending a relationship that I wasn't sure I was ready to leave behind. But it's difficult for me to remember ever feeling upset by my sleuthing. Interestingly, we learned that we both chalked up our nosy tendencies to "research" — me as a writer, she as an actor. "I feel like on a purely narcissistic level I use these other (often arbitrary) people to compare myself to," she wrote to me regarding cyber-stalking in general. "But I can't ever figure out why I continue to invest in these people past thinking of them in terms of myself."

I can't either, and I'm embarrassed by the hours I've wasted tracking meaningless social media ephemera. But my former stalker/stalkee convinced me that I shouldn't be. "Life would be so much more relaxing if we could all just admit the things we do and we'd realize we have them in common and then we wouldn't feel so guilty about them," she wrote to me. She's right.

Image by Jim Cooke, source photo via Pressmaster/Shutterstock