How many friends do you have? No, before you answer, think instead about how many friends you have who aren’t online. Pose the question this way around, and you might need to remind yourself what “friends” actually are. You remember, it’s those people you’ve actually met. The ones who exist. The ones you actually like. The ones who don’t carry around a large photograph of Karen Carpenter as an ironic stand-in for their true identity. The ones who, somehow or other, aren’t included in your tally of 567 friends.
What is it with these strange and obdurate people? Why are they so content to live their lives in the plodding fleshy solidity of the real world? How do they do it? Why don’t they care what their friends were doing fourteen minutes ago? In fact, how can they even consider themselves “friends” when they can’t arrive at work in the morning already able to savour the photos of each other drunk the night before, when they can’t circulate topical and hilarious video clips to each other several times a day, when they can’t showcase twenty-four hours a day how popular, entertaining, well-travelled, well-read and interminably charming they are? Why exactly don’t these people feel the need to keep up with the perpetually unfolding trivia of the lives of every single person they’ve ever met? What’s wrong with them?
We’re not like them of course: we’re normal. We do normal things like stalk our exes. Well, not really stalk, obviously. Not in the following them down the street, phoning them up in the middle of the night and hiding in a hedge outside their window sense. That would be tiresome. No, I’m talking about the popular healthy modern pastime of online stalking. For those of us with exes with distinctive names, it’s easy. Search engines grant us instantaneous access to an ever-expanding vault of ready to hand and up to date information. Wow, she never used to be into that! I can’t believe he still works there! What’s she doing with him! And if their names are more ordinary, we simply need to work harder. Wading through endless American badminton players, endless South African estate agents, endless animal-rights campaigning New Zealanders, endless photographers from Stoke - endless innocent and annoying namesakes cluttering up and impeding the progress of our pursuit - our purposiveness is undiminished. We don’t give up. The lure is too great: a low-resolution photograph from a work function here, a brief mention in the credits of a project there, perhaps even a self-made website enthusing about some preoccupation or other there (frustratingly opaque and impersonal, of course). We’ve no desire to see our ex anymore, but somehow we’re sated by these few banal scraps of biography, reassured by their ongoing presence in the flattened-out Babel of cyberspace.
But what’s more malevolent is when something really is at stake: when it actually matters how the stalkee fares under the judgemental gaze of the stalker. Attending an interview, for example, meeting a client, choosing a flatmate, going on a date, inviting someone to take part in a project – here the quest for information is no longer motivated by such innocent and fun values as curiosity, jealousy, nostalgia or conceit. Now it’s all about evidence, substantiation, conclusive facts.
Sure, it’s always been important to present yourself in the best possible light. We’ve always printed our CVs on best-quality paper, we’ve always worn smart suits to interviews, we’ve always had our hair done before a date. But that was fickle. Nobody really believed that you always looked and sounded so immaculate. It was plainly a facade, a contract to be entered into, a gentle and sportsmanlike agreement which conveniently delineated truth and fiction. But nowadays such clear demarcations have become slippery. Now we’ve become entangled with our public profiles, our websites, our identities, our networks of friends, our systems of contacts, our sets of interests, our publicly viewable biographies furnished with noteworthy milestones passed on the way to becoming the perfect employee, client, flatmate, date, collaborator. People, we now appreciate, need to know where we studied, where we worked (and if we didn’t work or study there, then we don’t need to tell them at all). People need to know that we’re of an irresistible age (and if we’re not, it’s none of their business anyway). People need to be able to browse through endless photos of us doing the vivacious, adventurous, remarkable and conscientious things that we do (and if we don’t do any of those things, then we just need to change our privacy settings).
People, we’ve come to realise, have a basic and fundamental right to know the truth about us before they meet us. That’s all. We could of course refuse to divulge anything about ourselves, and hide away in the weird and shadowy world of offline. Nobody would really mind. We’d still have a job, we’d still have friends, we’d still exist (more or less). It’s just that nobody would know about us. We’d be nobody’s stalkee. We’d be nobody.