Why Am I So Obsessed With That Person From Sixth Grade? Cyberstalking and the Permanent Reunion

The rejection we feel when we find out that someone has de-friended us on Facebook […]

David Zahl / 2.15.12

The rejection we feel when we find out that someone has de-friended us on Facebook or stopped following us on Twitter must be the definition of a ‘modern problem.’ We usually discover these things by accident, which probably accounts for why they sneak through our defenses so easily. Just the other day, for example, I noticed that someone had un-followed me on Twitter, and almost immediately, I found myself drawn into a web of self-recrimination. It was particularly silly since I was about to stop following them. And I knew my reasons had very little to do with my esteem for the person in question – in fact, I really liked them. The move had more to do with self-protection, the way that, depending on one’s mood, even the most innocuous ‘update’ can feed (!) our judgments of ourselves and one another, expose our overattachments and insecurities, etc. It’s exhausting. I had hoped that restoring a little mystery might serve our relationship, but now I wanted to run away. I began to dread our next interaction.

Apparently I’m not the only one who’s dealt with this dynamic. In fact, the very next day The NY Times ran a story on the same phenomenon, Pamela Paul’s “Don’t Tell Me, I Don’t Want To Know,” which contains a wealth of priceless little admissions. It’s a pretty stunning look at the way we tie ourselves up in knots online, tirelessly searching for ways to validate or invalidate our existence, helpless to the self-centeredness that leads us interpret everything as a comment on our value. Given the human hardwiring for Law, this should hardly come as a surprise. I mean, what other creature would create a measuring stick out of an acquaintance from kindergarten’s vacation photos?! The irony here is that our online personae tend to be carefully calibrated projections of what we think will earn us love/respect/etc, our newsfeeds the sifted input that will make us feel best; control gets us in the door, but compulsion keeps us coming back.

Of course, social media itself is not the issue. A lot of it is great, and if these sites ceased to exist for some reason, we would inevitably find another venue for comparison. Social media is simply one of the many areas of contemporary life where willpower is revealed to have limited sway, where we find ourselves more consistently unable to avoid doing the very things we know make us miserable — one of the places, in other words, where our collective need for grace is most evident, even painfully so. Which reminds me, I wonder if we’ll lose a few followers after this post… Mercy Mercy Me:

There are things I’d rather just not know about you. Yet I, like most people, have become inundated with Too Much Information about the people I know and the people I wish I didn’t know but am now acquainted with. It’s as if we’re all trapped at a permanent reunion with everyone we ever bumped into at a street fair or waved to mistakenly in the cafeteria.

“The entire world has become this Dickensian series in which you are not visited by three ghosts but by eight million ghosts,” said Sloane Crosley, author of “How Did You Get This Number.” “I feel as if I see things about people that I don’t necessarily want to see, and then it’s lodged like a piece of corn in my subconscious.”

There’s one person who keeps coming around in the People You May Know Box on Facebook where just the suggestion of this person changes my whole day,” said Pam Houston, the novelist. “It’s essential to my well-being to create the illusion that this person doesn’t exist.”

Even if we like a person, we don’t necessarily like — or even “like” — what we find out about them online. Do we need to see a rival’s witticism promiscuously retweeted? “I had to stop following certain friends because I was constantly seeing them tweet about all the parties that I wasn’t invited to!” said Laurie David, a Hollywood producer and author. “The worst is the Twitpic — people take pictures of themselves at these fun dinners, and you’re not there.”

Let’s be straight: it’s not just that other people’s minutiae bombard us regularly. Sometimes, we seek it out despite ourselves. Whether you call it low-buzz stalking, cyberstalking or the unsettling new term “creeping,” people can now browse around the edges of former intimates’ lives, learning much too much about them: they can do perfect inverted yoga poses; they have married well; last week they had dinner with Bono.

“If the F.B.I. came and ransacked my computer, they’d be like: ‘What is your obsession with this person from sixth grade? Why have you looked at her picture a million times?’ ” said Julie Klam, whose next book, “Friendkeeping,” is about actual friendships.

How is it that activities we wouldn’t in a million years be roped into doing in real life — paging through an acquaintance’s baby album, suffering through a relative’s slide show from Turkey — become strangely alluring online?

“I had to go on a vacation-photo diet,” admitted Laura Zigman, the novelist. “I had this bizarre, voyeuristic habit of scrolling through people’s travel photos online and then feeling like, Why haven’t I walked the Great Wall of China? And guilt: I should be taking my son to Spain. I don’t even like to travel!”

“Other people’s happiness doesn’t bother me unless I’ve dated them before,” Ms. Kelly said. “And then I’m really disturbed by it.”

Sherry Turkle, a psychologist and author of “Alone Together: Why We Expect More From Technology and Less From Each Other,” spoke of the effects. “People pay a psychological price for seeing information about former friends and spouses and colleagues that they really shouldn’t be seeing,” she said. It’s not good for our emotional health and, she said, “It makes people feel bad because they know they shouldn’t look at this stuff — but they can’t help it!”

A study published last month in the journal Cyberpsychology, Behavior and Social Networking found that the more time people spent on Facebook, the happier they perceived their friends to be and the sadder they felt as a consequence.

Alas, what strikes us as witty, original and winning often comes across to the rest of the world as sloppily confessional, self-promotional or trite. It is, I confess, paradoxically and distressingly difficult for me not to post about how much candy I’ve eaten on a given day. And even I don’t really want to know about that.