Facebook’s “stalker” application.

“Stalking” seems to have become the stand-in word for checking someone out on Facebook. I have been thinking a lot about how it says so much about how we feel about viewing other people’s information on Facebook. Information on Facebook is volunteered information and Facebook has several privacy settings (albeit hard to use sometimes), but when someone looks at someone else’s Facebook profile we call it “stalking.” But stalking is a serious offense where you follow, intimidate and harass someone, something that can happen online or in the real world. The constant use of the word “stalking” for things that don’t constitute as stalking is problematic because it downplays how serious stalking actually is.

Since I am in the camp that tries not to use the term “stalking,” for Facebook activity and works hard to ensure that creepy Facebook activity is locked down, blocked or deleted, I had a few alarm bells go off when Mashable announced Facebook’s “stalker” application.

Facebook is apparently testing a new subscription feature that would allow users to receive alerts any time a specific friend takes certain actions on the social network.

AllFacebook reports that it has noticed the new feature popping up on friends’ profiles. Facebook (Facebook) told the blog, “This feature is being tested with a small percent of users. It lets people subscribe to friends and pages to receive notifications whenever the person they’ve subscribed to updates their status or posts new content (photos, videos, links or notes).”

In other words, when you click to subscribe to a user, you’ll get a new Facebook notification in your notifications bar at the top of the site or on the mobile device of your choosing any time that other user posts content. We’re not sure yet if you can subscribe to someone who’s not a friend, which is much more stalker-like, or if notifications include likes and comments (right now, it sounds like they won’t).

So, clearly, Mashable used the word “stalker” for a salacious headline (cuz nothing sez salacious like “stalker”), but this to me seems the same as following someone on twitter or subscribing to any other RSS feed. Yes, if someone you don’t want to follow your updates on Facebook subscribes that can be frustrating, but there are privacy settings so that you can block that person or you can moderate what updates they see.

The bigger issue here is the conflation of following someone online being equated as “stalking,” even if the person is your friend, boss or someone who has a crush on you. I think it shows a certain level of discomfort we have with sharing our information online, even if we are giving it voluntarily. Sharing personal information on Facebook is still in the new and foreign category and many people either don’t know how to use the privacy functions or are not sure how to control the flow of information and something feels out of control about it.

But to be clear, looking at someone’s Facebook profile a lot is not stalking; stalking is stalking. If someone is using your Facebook profile to stalk you, intimidate you or harass you, you should delete the user, ban them, tell your friends or call the police. Do what you need to do and take it seriously. And let’s try and shift away from using the term “stalking” for following people on Facebook. Anna uses the word “creeping,” which I think is a delightful alternative.

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3 Comments

  1. Posted September 7, 2010 at 1:30 pm | Permalink

    We are comfortable with sharing information and yet we are not. We want to share information on our own terms alone, which is something contradicted by how open and available stuff is on an online platform. We want to be voyeurs, but we don’t want anyone to spy on us the way we do other people.

    But I hope that this degree of open information sharing will destroy the stigma of lots of subjects we keep to ourselves out of shame that we really need not.

  2. Posted September 7, 2010 at 2:24 pm | Permalink

    I have to disagree that you DEFINATELY can stalk a person on facebook. I recently had a former friend contacting me every single time I popped on facebook to keep my mouth shut about him raping me. With the recent privacy changes, he was still able to find information about me even after I defriended him and anyone that was a mutual friend (which caused me to lose contact with some close friends) because they made anything in my profile avaliable on google. This caused him pleasure anytime I decided to post that I was having a hard day, he would find a way to get information back to me that I deserved to be going through such a hard time. There are ways of stalking a person on facebook, however the way you were talking about is not.

  3. Posted September 8, 2010 at 3:59 am | Permalink

    I’m pretty sure the facetious/tongue-in-cheek use of “stalking” has Internet origins that predate Facebook, but I can’t really pin down a usage beforehand. However, the term “lurking” has been around for probably at least a decade in the context of message board and forum discussion (designates when a person isn’t saying anything but is presumably reading the conversation[s]). It may be deemed that “lurking” falls in the category with “creeping,” but a Real Life usage may imply a suspicious behavior, which is not necessarily the case with Internet usage.

    It is generally hard to fight against the tide of Internet lingo, especially when some sort of joking is involved in its use (in the case of “stalking,” it is exaggerating the intention on the person doing the “stalking.”) You may have more success in trying to shape how the word is used rather than stopping the word itself. In the case of stalking, you may try to get people to say “stalking [X] on facebook” or “stalking [X]‘s facebook page” (it doesn’t take that much more effort to type when one abbreviates to FB) to differentiate from “stalking [X].” Granted, you can still recommend “creeping” as the preferred option, but you can still suggest the stalking-with-context as a second choice (as still being better than stalking-without-context). If you can be satisfied with that kind of plan, it should give the proposal more reach.

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