How to win black “friends” and influence people on the internet

woman at computer, with a bunch of people standing nearby looking at her. caption reads, i'm trying to add more friends.

When I met Anna (Feministing’s awesome community moderator) in person for the first time, she recognized me right away — because, she confessed, “I creeped you on Facebook.”

I love this turn of phrase. “Stalk” has long been the verb of choice to describe the type of checking-people-out-online that we all do. I’ve always hated it (though I’m guilty of using it, too) because it conflates a relatively harmless, almost routine behavior with an abusive, controlling, threatening invasion of privacy. So, thanks to Anna, I have a better way to describe my low-level web voyeurism. I don’t stalk, I creep.

I thought about the difference between creeping and stalking when I saw this post — “Why I Stalk a Sexy Black Woman on Twitter (and Why You Should, Too)” — at Gizmodo yesterday. (If the headline alone did not make your brain explode, the comments section will.) Joel Johnson writes,

It all started one day when Anil Dash pointed out how many black people use Twitter. I realized most of my Twitter friends are like me: white dorks. So I picked out my new friend and started to pay attention.

Now, the impulse to befriend people who are different from you is a good one! The problem is that the word “friend” has been completely warped by online social networking. It’s now a verb, not a noun; something you do, not someone you care about. My actual friends — both online and off — are people I share the details of my life with, joke around with, turn to when I’ve had a bad day. Many of my “friends” on Twitter and Facebook are just professional contacts, or folks who simply have interesting things to say, or perhaps people I followed on a whim. They are certainly part of my online life, but I wouldn’t call them friends.

The distinction is important when considering Johnson’s post. The nameless “sexy black woman” isn’t his friend. They don’t talk. She is not someone he shares experiences with. She is not actually part of his friend circle. She’s just someone he looks at.

He’s going for the online version of this:
racially diverse group of people, laughing
Image

via Black People Love Us!

And ending up with something like this:
white man staring intently at computer screen, alone

You can’t meaningfully diversify your social network — online or off — with just a couple of clicks. Your “friend list” on Facebook or Twitter might be as rainbowriffic as a college admissions brochure, but if you’re not planning on developing real friendships with any of them (you know, in the I-care-about-you-and-want-to-talk-to-you way), then let’s face it, those people are just window dressing. They’re there to make you feel less racist. Which is, in and of itself, pretty racist.

Johnson writes,

[D]on’t discount the joy of discovery that can come by weaving a stranger’s life into your own. You can start simply, like I did, by finding someone charming and attractive.

But as far as I can tell, that’s where Johnson both started and stopped. She’s not his friend. She’s just someone he creeps on the Internet, in the name of diversity. And his description of this woman is kinda, well, creepy. It’s not an invasion of privacy per se — presumably her tweets are all public, or she approved him as a follower. But he describes her — on a very highly trafficked blog, I might add — as if she’s a rare creature:

She’s a Christian, but isn’t afraid of sex. She seems to have some problems trusting men, but she’s not afraid of them, either. She’s very proud of her fiscal responsibility. She looks lovely in her faux modeling shots, although I am surprised how much her style aligns with what I consider mall fashion when she’s a grown woman in her twenties. Her home is Detroit and she’s finding the process of buying a new car totally frustrating. She spends an embarrassing amount of time tweeting responses to the Kardashian family.

After reading this enlightening blog post I realized that white tech dudes are underrepresented in my social network. So I picked out my new friend (Joel Johnson, naturally!) and started paying attention.

He’s a single white tech writer, but has taken pains to make clear that he’s! had! sex! He seems to have some problems seeing women as three-dimensional people, but he’s not a total misogynist, either. He’s very proud of his writing ability. He has a lovely shock of blond hair, although I am surprised how much his style is still predictable-hipster-douche when he’s older than 30. His home is Eugene, Oregon but he’s in the process of moving to Portland. He spends an embarrassing amount of time tweeting about Apple products.

You’re probably thinking, what’s the big deal? He sounds like every other tech-writer dude on the Internet. (He’s not exotic like a black Christian woman from Detroit! /sarcasm) In other words, he’s got some serious privilege in this situation. Deanna explains all that, so I won’t rehash her post here.

I don’t think it’s sexist to look at women’s profiles on Facebook or follow people you’re attracted to on Twitter. However, I do think that encouraging men to creep (even though he used the word “stalk,” creeping is a more apt decision of Johnson’s behavior) women on social networking sites can reinforce the idea that

women — especially women of color — are always on display and accessible to men, which is the attitude that is at the heart of a lot of offline sexist behavior, everything from strangers catcalling women on the street to male bosses checking out their female employees on a daily basis. It’s an attitude that is at the heart of some abusive behavior like real stalking.

I also don’t think it’s racist to want to make friends of different races. But if you want to befriend someone, even if it’s just over the internet, then actually do it. Tweet at them. Message them. Have a conversation. Don’t just creep them and then write about them like they are a zoo exhibit. Because, well, #thatisracist.

Join the Conversation

  • Comrade Kevin

    Ann,
    It’s a bit of a balancing act. Creeping is often used as a safe way of learning about someone with whom you are too shy or too inhibited to otherwise engage directly. And though I agree it would be a much better world if we really said what we thought and didn’t feel the need to form these walls of separation and demarcation, I myself have tried to form actual IRL friendships with many people who wanted me to stay in the Facebook/Twitter only box.
    That’s their right, of course, and if it happened to be me speaking to a woman (which it almost always is, for reasons I need not invoke again), I found it really tragic and unfortunate that this was all they were really seeking. I never felt like I had some innate right to broach boundaries, but I also felt really disappointed.
    Boundaries shouldn’t be seen just as a means of defense. They can also be symptomatic of a person who feels so uncomfortable with himself/herself that a half-measure like this is about the best they feel comfortable with doing. I have certainly been privy to a situation like this with someone who I wanted to date. Internet-only felt safe to her, but sometimes “safety” is its own cage.
    Lots of men I know of would not have respected boundaries like these for lots of reasons, privilege being one of them, but also because we don’t talk about situations like this enough to recognize why they are problematic. And I also think that there may be some confusion, since there may be a desire to think that someone who is being standoffish is just shy and needs to be confronted directly. Without vocalizing the need for boundaries, it leads to uncertainty and impatience. I figure if you’re going to build a wall, you’d need to ask yourself precisely who you were walling in or walling out, or to whom you were like to give offense.

  • DeafBrownTrash

    I also don’t think it’s racist to want to make friends of different races. But if you want to befriend someone, even if it’s just over the internet, then actually do it. Tweet at them. Message them. Have a conversation. Don’t just creep them and then write about them like they are a zoo exhibit. Because, well, #thatisracist.
    I agree with you about that. I’ve been accepting friend requests from Indonesia, Brazil, Morocco, and Europe. I love it because they actually talk to me and I ask them questions about what it’s like over there and they ask me what it’s like living here.
    But I always reject friend requests from creepy dudes whose friends list include a lot of porn stars and female celebrities. Um, no thanks.

  • baalitlaura

    This post is fascinating mostly because I thought about my social network and realized it’s pretty diverse in a lot of senses. I participate in many different communities (literary, atheist, sci-tech, teachers) so I get a lot of different perspectives.
    I do like the comment about “friend” being an action not an actual person anymore. However, it’s not the part of speech but the notion that the act of being someone’s friend is boiled down to a few mouse clicks. I’ve recently experience a number of people IRL who didn’t seem to really understand the meaning of being a/acting like a friend. It’s a curious transition with this word that deserves more exploration.
    Also, “every other tech-writer dude on the internet” is not helpful. I know lot of men who are both techy and feminist. They are out there.

  • Sex Toy James

    So every now and then I stop by a blog by someone who’s coming from a totally different place in the world. I look at the world from someone else’s perspective, and often get something out of it. Part of the reason I’m on here are some of those community posts that introduce me to whole worlds of stuff that I never even though to think about. Sometimes I comment. Even if I don’t, I think that I’m enriched by those perspectives so different from my own. Thanks to Feministing I understand more about the relationships that women have with shoes than ever before.
    While Joel’s article may not be high on tact, I think that it’s a good idea. If everyone were to reach out and listen to someone very different from themselves I think that we’d be more understanding people. Getting down on him for not trying to make friends seems like chastising someone for not doing enough when you should maybe be encouraging them in that direction. I think that it’s a good thing when one realizes the bounds of their social sphere and makes an effort to step outside of it and take in some new perspectives. To label that as racist, unless they make friends with the person seems like a stupidly high standard to set.
    It also seems awkward and impractical to insert yourself into a conversation with someone you’re following for their dissimilar background. What do you even say to Christians who know what the Kardashian family is? I thought that privileged people have been encouraged to just shut up and listen?

  • Unequivocal

    but if you’re not planning on developing real friendships with any of them (you know, in the I-care-about-you-and-want-to-talk-to-you way), then let’s face it, those people are just window dressing. They’re there to make you feel less racist. Which is, in and of itself, pretty racist.
    How exactly does this work for people who, in general, have a wide array of internet “friends” with whom they have no intention of cultivating deeper friendships? Johnson is following about 350 people; i sincerely doubt he is deeply involved with more than a fraction of them. Is that a bad thing across the board, or just a bad thing when he is following someone of a different race?
    I guess what I’m getting at here is that the real problem is not that Johnson (or anyone else) is cultivating one-way online relationships with minorities, but that he comes across as creepy and kind of a douche when he talks about the sexy black woman he is stalking.

  • blacksouth

    This reminds me why I read engadget, and not gizmodo for my tech news.
    I don’t think it’s wrong to want to know people of a different race. If you think about it, the only reason that BPLU pic is ridiculous is because it’s not a sight we normally see. They all look to be a set of friends enjoying themselves, who just happen to be black and white couples.
    That said, Joel Johnson definitely comes off as a racist and sexist prick. The repeated mentions of how much of a sexy black lady she is only serves to remind us that he doesn’t find most black women sexy. And of course being the privileged boy he is, all women probably should meet a certain standard of sexiness for him, or else their worth is minimal.
    I don’t think the way he spoke of ‘stalking/creeping’ her was weird though. It’s just so easy to do on the internet, and we are all curious. I do it all the time. But the fact that he just posted her information for the whole english speaking world to read about is fucked up though. Yes, she is on twitter, but I doubted she ever thought thousands would read about her beliefs, and life. Did he think once that maybe, since I’m a writer for gizmodo with over a million readers, and she’s an relatively unknown woman from Detroit, I should at least tweet her and ask if she was okay with this article? I doubt it.
    The comments section weren’t bad at all though. I was glad to see a good number of thoughtful and critical comments. But yeah, if a tech blog is what you’re looking for, there are better ones out there. And gizmodo has always had an air of money grubbing about it, attacking politicians in articles that had nothing to do with politics, just to get more comments.
    A reminder that Jezebel and Gizmodo are part of the same company, and just like Jezebel writers are paid per # of page views, Gizmodo’s own could be paid the same way.

  • thecynicalromantic

    Johnson is following about 350 people; i sincerely doubt he is deeply involved with more than a fraction of them. Is that a bad thing across the board, or just a bad thing when he is following someone of a different race?
    Thing is, as far as I know, he hasn’t written lengthy exoticizing articles about WHY he is following the other 349 people and how “quaint” they are. Just the one Sexy Black Lady. That is the bad thing.
    I mean, sure, it takes more effort to make real friends with someone than it does to add them to your Twitter feed out of curiosity, but I’m not sure it takes substantially more effort to try to talk to someone once than it does to write a pseudopsychoanalysis of them and send it out to the entire Internet.
    The issue here isn’t that he read the lady’s Twitter. It’s that he made a whole highly publicized bullshit sociology project out of it, and THAT’s the sort of thing that, if you’re going to do it, you’d better do it right.

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