Facebook, “Facebook-stalking,” and privacy.

Facebook and I are “it’s complicated” together. Today I just want to talk about how it lets people get in touch with each other, but I promise there’s more to be said later.

All you need is someone’s name, and maybe their school or a vague idea of what they look like, and you have an excellent chance of being able to get in touch with them. This can be enormously useful, but it still somehow upsets me.

On the one hand, it enabled my quasi-stalker to stay in touch with me WAY longer than I wanted him to, since he could Facebook-message me. If I hadn’t forgotten to update my phone number when I got a new cell, he would’ve been able to call, me too– half his messages were to the effect of, “Why is your phone number wrong?”

But on the other hand, it is due to the magic of Facebook that I am about to recieve my LGBTerrific shirt! It seems that I forgot to update my PayPal shipping address, so the shirt got sent to the P.O. box that I had freshman year, which now belongs to Andrew (not his real name). Andrew, upon recieving a package with a name clearly not his own written on it, would probably be stuck asking people if they knew me, if it weren’t for Facebook. Maybe if he had the time, he’d put up some fliers. But it’s finals now, and I’m not on campus, so probably I’d eventually give up and buy a new shirt and he’d be stuck being a Ladies Medium LGBTerrific.

EXCEPT! Facebook DOES exist, so all he had to do was search for my name at our university, and ta-daah! He can contact me! Am I thrilled? YES! Am I terrified? YES!

This sort of thing is really a double-edged sword. Our university’s website has a similar thing, a directory, so that if you search for someone’s name it will give you their phone number and sometimes their campus address. This can be a hugely helpful feature– once, someone found my Arabic textbook in the library, looked me up on the university site, and called me to return it. Another time, I found a student’s ID card (which is necessary to get into buildings and buy things), looked up HIS number on the university site, and returned it to him.

It’s an amazing resource. I have nothing but wonderful anecdotes, problems that may never have been solvable if we didn’t have access to each other’s contact information. And yet, and yet. It just feels too dangerous.

I would love to be able to write under my own name, but I don’t. Partly it’s because it would be embarassing for certain members of my acquantance to come across these uncensored thoughts, given how much I censor myself around people in meatspace. But mostly I don’t use my name, especially my rather-distinctive last name, because I know that the name is all anyone would need to be able to find me. This is not a big blog. We’ve had exactly one troll. I’m probably not in any danger. But Kathy Sierra wasn’t even writing about feminist issues, she was just a woman, and I can’t forget that. This is not the safest use of my time. So far I’m under the radar, but if I ever get a bigger audience, I WILL get death threats and rape threats. That’s how it goes, with feminist blogs. And I don’t want to endanger myself outside of cyberspace as well, which means I mustn’t let my last name get connected with my pseudonym, and I mustn’t let people know what university I go to, because those facts are enough to find me.

And Facebook really enables some unfortunate behaviors. I mean, we even use the phrase “Facebook-stalking” for when you’re interested in someone and you follow everything their do on their Facebook. It’s usually just to satisfy idle curiosity– every now and then, I like to look at the names of everyone who identifies as “female, interested in women” just to reassure myself that I’m not the only one. But there really isn’t any way to prevent the much more sinister Facebook-stalking, the incessant, creepy messages, the constant reminders that “the phone number you posted doesn’t work,” the fear that if I RSVP for an event, he’ll show up there. It wasn’t “real” stalking (except when he figured out what restaurant I liked to go to to read, and started showing up there) but it WAS unsettling, and like the heroic rescue of my T-shirt, it wouldn’t have been possible without Facebook.

So, I love Facebook when I want to be found. It’s massively useful. But when I want to avoid someone– when I wanted my coworker/stalker to leave me alone– it makes me feel completely exposed.

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3 Responses to Facebook, “Facebook-stalking,” and privacy.

  1. Better safe than sorry… I love it too but worry about the kids doing something stupid — so I’m constantly reminding them that people they don’t know online could have sinister reasons for wanting to “hear about their day” and to keep that in mind.

    Ah life in the digital age.

  2. Crowfoot says:

    No doubt. There are a lot of predators out there and the internet seems like a great place for them to hide and go after people, at the same time.

    I have mixed feelings about facebook as well. I have a lot of admiration for women like my friend Heart, or Melissa McEwan of Shakesville for being so “out.” I don’t know if I could. I mean, I even blacked out my face on my horse-blogging entry, even tho I was only 12 at the time and not really recognizable from that photo. It would be a lot less of a mixed bag if there were fewer “bent wieners” as Heart puts it (heh).

  3. Dolly says:

    I don’t have a Facebook, yet I’m pretty open about who I am on WordPress–and even then sometimes I worry I reveal too much. I think the technological world we’re living in allows us in one way to be really creative — to explore our identities and to literally role play in cyberspace — and yet it also allows for other people to assume false identities and trick us, or use our real identities against us. I mean, that’s what trolls are all about right? They hide under the invisible mask and intentionally harass people because they can. The secrecy of the Internet permits them to be obnoxious.

    I’ve never had a MySpace or a Facebook, so I don’t think I’m going to get one soon. But you bring up a lot of good points about how public is safe and how private is boring?

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