At a birthday party a few years ago, I passed my iPhone to a friend to show him an Instagram photo of a man I had been dating for a few weeks. The guy and I weren’t yet at the Instagram-friends point in our relationship, but I would look in on his account from time to time, usually to show friends his photos in pursuit of their approval and congratulations. “How do I make the photo bigger?” my friend asked, double-tapping the photo in his effort to enlarge it. From across the table, I saw the empty white heart icon below the image turn red. Unaware that the double-tap is a classic amateur move when cruising Instagram in stealth mode, he had sent a notification to my crush’s phone that I was looking at his images like a proper creep. I made a noise that was a hybrid of dry-heaving and cursing God for not killing me in my mother’s womb. But then the unthinkable happened: Rather than call the authorities or tell every eligible man in a five-mile radius that I was a social-media stalker, the dude followed my account within minutes and set that little heart icon ablaze on a few of my photos.
Though that guy ended up barely a blip on my romantic-history radar, my accidental reveal left a lasting impression. Haters be damned: Indulging our curiosities by looking for a person online is a healthy, normal ritual.
Somewhere along the line, we decided that perusing publicly available information is an affront to liberty and privacy and an indication of a dangerous pathology. Looking up information became “stalking,” first as a judgmental label for other people’s practices, then as a way to self-deprecatingly confess our own habits. Many people admit to doing it, but always with a tacit acknowledgment that they know that they shouldn’t. Headlines like “Facebook stalkers! It’s time to take a digital vow of chastity” make it seem like such searches are the pastime of perverts.
Yet in almost every other facet of our lives, online research is considered a form of responsible due diligence. If I’m up for my dream job, it is considered a best practice to read the website, social profiles, and online bios of key staff members with whom I might interact in my interviews. When looking for a new hairstylist, it is considered responsible to read Yelp! reviews, look at websites, prices, and even Instagrams dedicated to candidates’ handiwork. Sometimes I just want to stare at Lana Del Rey’s face for a while, so I scroll her Instagram for a few minutes. These are considered savvy searches that increase our chances of compatibility with a service or person or entertain our curiosities in a noninvasive way. So why is looking at a crush’s Facebook page or Twitter account considered the work of the unhinged, desperate hag?
In reality, one in four people go further than looking people up: They send a friend request before the first date. A 2011 survey found that 81 percent of 20-somethings Google or Facebook a first date. And since 2011 is essentially a land before time in digital terms, it’s safe to assume that number has gone up since then. Embrace it! Stop letting the NSA have all the fun!
This derision against social-media browsing in the early stages of dating is especially strange when so many people are essentially begging you to look at their social-media profiles. Many Tinder users don’t include words in their bio sections, instead simply linking to their Instagram or Twitter profile. And why not? Directing people to the social-media profile of one’s choice provides a much better sense of their interests and personality. I have saved myself a lot of time and energy by declining dates with people whose Twitter timelines and Instagram feeds reveal deal-breakers like deeply incompatible politics or a stubborn refusal to wear a bicycle helmet. I have also adequately prepared myself for many date conversations by taking an active interest in the other person’s interests before meeting them. I’ve been on the receiving end of such searches, too, and once I got over the initial impulse to shriek, “I AM MORE THAN MY DIGITAL FOOTPRINT!” it was refreshing to talk to people who actually knew something about me.
“But!” you might object. “What about the fact that this habit quickly becomes pathological and causes my jealous imagination to descend to the depths of Hades, where I extrapolate wildly about every post I see?” Reader, I have swum in that River Styx, and it was misery indeed. I have looked at hundreds of photos of men with their exes going back to 2005 when Facebook introduced photo albums. I have winced at the ill-advised “Friendzone” meme by a seemingly good dude and reevaluated my whole life. I have looked at more Facebook profiles of men’s fathers to see how well they’ll age than I care to admit. Social-media lurking can get grim if you overinvest or take a wrong turn. But the mere possibility of falling into an unfortunate rabbit hole should not dissuade us from perusing social profiles entirely.
“The distinction between stalking and using social media is the level of intensity. There is just no way of fully consenting to all of the outcomes that can occur from putting my information out there,” says Daniel Trottier, an assistant professor at Erasmus University Rotterdam, who studies social-media surveillance. Trottier notes that while we may think we’ve only done a little bit of searching, printing out the information we have gathered would look very different. In some cases, this material amounts to a handful of clues about how a person chooses to engage online. In others, it amounts to a robust dossier on a person that includes way more information than they realized they were surrendering before a first date. A good gauge for preventing obsession is imagining the person seeing the size of the dossier you’ve amassed. If you’d be mortified, it is a good sign that you should call it quits and look at Lana Del Rey’s face for a while.