While reading Katie J.M. Baker’s recent Jezebel piece, “A Tale of Mutual Cyberstalking,” I found myself on board with everything she was saying. I was practically fist pumping by the end of her story. A testament to the quality of her writing. But at the same time, I don’t agree with her. It’s not normal to obsessively cyberstalk — either your ex or your ex’s new partner –which is what her piece is about. She writes:
“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.”
The twist in this tale is that Baker discovers that her ex’s new partner is stalking her back. And even when the new lover and Baker’s ex break up, they continue to keep tabs on each other via social media. They end up meeting and genuinely like one another. All ends well for Baker and the now ex-lover:
“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.”
I love the idea of admitting the fucked up things we do and realizing we are not alone. But I think this story is the exception to the rule when it comes to cyberstalking. Things usually don’t end this way, with mutual respect and insight. They usually end with someone feeling like shit — whether be it stalker or stalkee. I’ve found myself on both ends.
When one of my ex’s got engaged, I dipped a toe into the pool of discovering who this woman was. Actually, I have my best friend to thank (or not thank) for that. A mutual friend of my ex, she sent me a link to his fiancee’s LinkedIn page along with a fake backstory that she thought would make me feel better. “She’s a society bitch without a soul! They deserve each other.” It did not make me feel better.
It compelled me to scroll through my ex’s pictures on Facebook. I was sorry I did. Very sorry. There were so many of them — zip lining in South America, riding bikes in Thailand and eating at a Michelin-rated restaurant in the South of France. His fiancee looked effortlessly chic in every picture. I imagined that she was an easygoing, natural beauty with silky straight blonde hair to boot! The engagement photos were even more gut wrenching. His family was there, looking enthralled with the girl in a way they never did with me. I only got through a few photos before I made myself stop. I thought I was going to marry this person at one point in my life. And he was marrying someone else who seemed about as different from me as a woman could possibly be. My self-worth deflated like one of those Shrinky Dinks I used to be so fond of when I was a kid. Just put it in the oven and watch it shrivel!
That dark day, I made a strict policy for myself: No cyberstalking anyone. Ever. You can’t ever get an accurate perception of a person by tracking their web footprint. It’s just not possible, humans are too complex. When I break up with someone, I either hide or unfriend them on Facebook, unfollow them on Twitter, hide them on GChat and banish them from my social media universe. I don’t want to know what happens to them or who they date next. If we are meant to cross paths again, we will. Of course, I’m curious sometimes. It’s human to be curious. But I’ve come to understand that social media is like a funhouse. It warps everything, makes it giant or small or headless, unrecognizable, most notably, your sense of self and of reality. It takes your imagination on a wild tilt-a-whirl of imagined scenarios and possibilities. It’s a warped mirror, reflecting your worst fears and deepest insecurities. I refuse to step, even one foot, inside that funhouse. Because once you’re in, you’re in.
I almost broke this policy with a boyfriend’s (he’s now an ex) long-time ex-girlfriend. I was curious about her. Desperately curious. I briefly entertained the idea of opening the door and talking a cyber peek. Just a tiny one. One or two pictures. But something stopped me. One morning, while spending the night at my then-boyfriend’s place, I found a roll of old Photo Booth pictures of the two of them, by accident, in a dingy corner of his kitchen. I never said anything about it to him. I studied the pictures in secret while he was taking a shower, a happy couple still together. The way he wrapped his arms around her from behind, in a bear hug made me bitter. Not jealous, just bitter. Bitter, because in the pictures I could tell that she was the great love of his life. Not me. I don’t even want to imagine how I would have felt clicking through her Facebook photos.
Eventually, when he revealed that she was stalking me on Facebook (they were still in touch), I felt equal parts violation and compassion. I wanted to tell her to stop. Because I felt seen in an uncomfortable way, like someone accidentally opening the door on you while you’re in the bathroom. Exposed. I wanted to tell her that there was no point. She had gotten his heart, would always have it. What did she want from me? Just let me like my stupid videos on Facebook in peace. Something changed in our relationship after that. I’m not going to say that my boyfriend and I broke up because of his ex’s cyberstalking, but the knowledge that she was stalking me changed something. Something was lost.
So, to bring me back to my point. Katie J.M. Baker’s tale excluded, I don’t think there’s any good that comes out of cyberstalking, whether it be an ex or their new love. It’s human to be curious. But more often than not, that curiosity will kill your self-esteem. Best to keep the door to the funhouse shut.