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

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