Between Fandom, Friendship, and Stalking

How the internet erases fine lines.

Internet2Welcome to “How to Be a Decent Human On the Internet,” our advice column by Internet commentator and Jeopardy! champion Arthur Chu. You can read about the genesis of the column here: Sticks and Stones May Break My Bones, But Words Are A Loaded Gun.

Everything is older than people think. In 2009 the verb “unfriend” made the news as Word of the Year because of the transformative effect Facebook had supposedly had on our language by watering down the meaning of “friendship”. But Facebook got that terminology from MySpace, who got it from the long-forgotten Friendster, who got it—from what as far as I know is the original source—from LiveJournal, founded in the ancient days of 1999.

I bring this up because LiveJournal, for us Internet veterans, was a place where extremely geeky people worked out a lot of issues related to Internet drama before they exploded into the wider world, allowing us early adopters to examine social trends in microcosm, kind of like a digital Galápagos Islands.

One of the first things that people noticed about LiveJournal’s choice of the word “friend” was that in LJ-land friendship was asymmetrical. It was possible to be someone’s friend without their being your friend—which meant that you were automatically updated on their new posts without their being updated on yours. (The fact that Facebook forced “friendship” to be mutual at first is one reason Facebook grew virally faster than LJ—by providing constant pressure to reveal your information to more and more people—but also a reason it’s caused way more unintentional drama than LJ did.)

People remarked on how this showed the clunky fiction behind using the term “friend,” but also how, like many mutations of language in the Internet age, it revealed an unpleasant truth—that actual friendship is frequently asymmetrical, that there’s probably people in your life you think are your friends but who don’t think they’re friends with you. (Hence, again, Facebook making things awkward in a way LJ didn’t, when That Guy sends you a friend request you leave hanging for days because you’re not sure what message you want to send to him.)

But the real unpleasant truth LJ kicked up was their ill-advised April Fool’s prank in 2004, when on April 1st they temporarily changed the site’s code so that rather than showing two lists, “Friends” and “Friends Of,” it showed “Stalking” and “Stalked By.”

Many people blew up—justifiably so—because being a victim of stalking is not something to make light of. But people also blew up because LJ had, uncomfortably, told the truth. It was genuinely hard to draw the line between using LJ as a normal well-adjusted LJ geek would and being a “stalker”; the whole thing that made blogging and social media exciting was the opportunity to bare your soul in public and share deep, intimate details of your life freely in hopes of meeting sympathetic strangers. It was inevitable that that would lead to mixed signals and hurt feelings and cases of actual no-joke abusive stalking.

One reason Facebook got rid of asymmetrical “friending” was to discourage the perception of encouraging stalking—initially, when Facebook rolled out on “elite” college campuses, the idea was that it was only to be used among people who knew each other in real life. That decayed over time, though, to the point where it’s normal to have at least a thousand Facebook friends and for most of them to be people you haven’t spoken to offline in years, or sometimes at all.

On services like Twitter or Instagram, which consciously encourage the formation of communities clustered around “celebrities”? Asymmetrical “friending” is the norm, to the point where the ratio between people you “follow” versus people who “follow” you is a useful metric for how important you are. (I tongue-in-cheek celebrated with “I am finally a real person” when my follower count on Twitter first exceeded my following count.)

And yes, when you think about it, “following” is just a slightly more neutral way of saying “stalking.”

All of this is, in some ways, very cool. It’s a great thing that interesting people can end up developing global fanbases without going through gatekeepers, that ideas can bounce around the world without being filtered by publishers and editors. It’s great that relationships can develop and flourish in radically unexpected places.

It’s also scary, and dangerous, and filled with unintended consequences. But such is life.

The whole theme of what I see as the problem with digital culture is “context collapse.” LiveJournal’s abuse of the word “friend” was prescient; it’s not so much the lack of face-to-face interaction that’s the issue (people have had great friendships and even torrid love affairs through paper and ink for centuries) but the fact that social media has gotten us used to undirected communication. The big cultural breakthrough that led to the concept of blogging and social media was the appeal of throwing your thoughts out like a message in a bottle, letting them find an audience on their own.

The exciting and wonderful and also dangerous and frightening thing about the social media world is someone being able to “get to know” me without me, specifically, knowing that they’re doing so or even that they exist. It’s possible for two people to get to know each other, in fact, without even knowing each other exists. It’s possible to send a steady stream of messages without knowing what context they’ll be taken in. It’s possible to have dozens of stalkers with a crush whom you don’t even know exist.

There’s always been people who’ve lived like that, but they’ve historically been an elite class—artists, writers, public speakers, the people who in the 20th century we labeled “celebrities.” And as TMZ, Us Weekly, E! and indeed the whole genre of “celebrity news” demonstrates, being a celebrity fucks with your head and fucks you up.

On the one hand, it’s stressful to have people think they know you when they don’t. It doesn’t have to get to the level of shooting the President to try to get you to date them. Even on a casual, innocent level from decent, ordinary people, it can be scary and invasive to have someone assume intimacy based on something you wrote or something you said or a performance you gave. It’s easy to forget that real intimacy is reciprocal—that it is, in fact, quite anxiety-inducing to have someone say “I feel like I know you” when you don’t know them at all.

On the other hand, it’s even worse when you, yourself, buy into the delusion that people know you who don’t. As pretty much every biography of Marilyn Monroe has at this point observed, falling in love with your own image is both intoxicating and toxic. The privilege once enjoyed by the elite members of the Who’s Who—the ability to manage your “brand,” to play the PR game, to pick and choose elements of your life to broadcast to portray yourself in the most flattering light—is now available to everyone with a Facebook account. Which is leading to the possibility that we’re engaging in increasing narcissistic behavior and, as a result, becoming more depressed.

I can speak to that danger, as someone who’s gotten more famous than I ever expected to be much faster than I ever expected to. There’s an addictive, self-defeating sense in which it’s easier and more immediately rewarding to engage with people who don’t know you very well than people who do. It feels good to get “likes” from people who don’t know much about you other than the witty comment you just made or the awesome photo you just shared or the impressive achievement you just described. You get a nice warm glow from that kind of shallow interaction because it lets you, temporarily, retreat from seeing your real life as it is with all its failings and flaws.

This is a dangerous kind of relationship to have in both directions. I’ve had my share of Facebook crushes in my life—both celebrity-worship of actual famous people and idealizing friends-of-friends or distant acquaintances as awesome people I’d get along awesomely with entirely on the strength of social media posts that weren’t directed at me. (And I have, in fact, written in the past about being an “Internet fan” and how fraught that kind of one-sided relationship can be.)

I’ve also had Internet fans—people who’ve come to me out of the blue for advice, or words of wisdom, or a shoulder to cry on based on something I wrote. There’s a very particular anxiety that bubbles up when a stranger identifies you as a role model because you’ve cleared the very low bar of, say, being a man who writes sympathetically about feminism—where with every word you say you’re acutely conscious of all your myriad flaws and past sins and terrified that you’ll be exposed for a fraud at any moment.

And then there’s the reverse, the moments of seeking “Twitter therapy,” of going to Facebook friends-of-friends or Twitter users who clicked the “Follow” button for a joke I told once for affirmation and banter when I’m feeling low—those moments when you just want to be reassured you’re a good guy even when your wife or your boss or your best friend doesn’t think so, and the Internet obligingly provides a boundless supply of “friends” you can tell one-sided versions of your story to.

They’re all behaviors that I’ve seen in myself even when I was a fairly typical heavy user of social media, long before I became “famous.” (Indeed, to some degree having my profile raised has made me better about these behaviors by putting me under more scrutiny and keeping me honest.) They’re behaviors that I see repeat themselves on a daily basis throughout all kinds of communities—even in the smallest possible ponds you’ll see people developing “fanbases,” and you’ll see that behavior turn pathological as people build echo chambers around themselves and launch their “fans” as weapons against each other.

Let me be clear: I’m not advocating the notion that online relationships aren’t “real” or that online interaction is not “real life,” an idea I think is responsible for all manner of ills. But I do think that the urge to lie to yourself about how well you know someone, and how well they know you, is a human universal, and one of the many ways digital tools have empowered us is empowering us to be better liars.

I know many couples who met each other online and are now in happy, stable relationships. I’ve known an equal number or more of people who tried dating after mutual admiration online and had everything blow up in their faces for utterly predictable reasons—especially when they fit the utterly predictable dysfunctional-serial-monogamy pattern of abandoning a boring, difficult, real relationship for an exciting problem-free fantasy relationship—only to abandon that one for the next one once it, too, gets too real.

Leaving romance out of it, I’ve seen obsessive fans—”stans“—of a moderately famous person grow bitter and vicious as soon as they meet their idol and learn they have feet of clay. (In fact, that’s what the song “Stan” is about.) And I’ve seen cool, intelligent, thoughtful people disappear entirely up their own ass and become monsters once they got a big enough fanbase to start interacting only with enablers.

I don’t have an easy, pat answer for this. The luddite response to “just don’t have online relationships” would, in the modern world, mean giving up most social interaction entirely—and, after all, all online interaction does is enable patterns we’ve been playing out since time immemorial.

The one principle I try to keep in mind is to err on the side of brutal honesty, and to remember the fundamental attribution error. It’s to remember that everything has a context. If a given interaction leads to someone being pissed at me or hating me, that doesn’t mean I’m a fundamentally hateful, bad person—it just means that encounter went poorly. (And the same goes for when someone pisses me off and leaves a bad impression on me.) If someone likes me or speaks well of me, that speaks well of the impression I made on them—but it’s no final verdict on my character nor excuse that makes up for when I fuck up in how I treat others.

My wife and I knew each other “in real life” when we started dating—we attended the same college and had many of the same friends—but, as introverted and busy nerds, most of our actual daily interaction before we started dating was online, in the form of Facebook posts and email chains and IMs.

Which was great. We got to know a lot about each other that way. Unless you’re playing a full on catfishing operation, you do learn a lot about a person in that context—their interests, their opinions, their sense of humor.

There’s a ton that you don’t learn, enough to fill a book. How a person reacts in the moment, under stress, in a crisis. How a person deals long-term with stress, moment by moment, hour by hour, week by week. What it’s like to just be with a person, even when they aren’t composing a pithy Facebook status to describe their current emotional state, even when they aren’t saying anything at all.

I can say for certain that the woman I’m married to now is not the person I used to flirt with on Facebook—and she certainly knows a version of me that’s wildly, radically different from any version of me you can reconstruct from social media.

For me the most important thing is to remember that the people I interact with are much, much more than the sum of the interactions I’ve had with them—that there’s as much going on beneath the surface with someone who’s pissed me off that day or impressed me that day as I know there is beneath my surface when someone comes to me with a kneejerk reaction, good or bad, to my online persona.

The blessing and the curse of modern media—of the modern world in general, really—is taking things that we find easy and instinctive and making them easier and easier. Living a life of surfaces—judging others based on their surface, putting out a pleasant surface for ourselves to be judged by—is easy, and we’ve been gifted with more tools than ever before to live in an endless maze of surfaces.

But anything worth doing, any relationship worth having, any person worth knowing—that takes digging deeper.