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Friends, Stalkers and the Internet

by Dear Jon
December 9, 2008

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Dear Jon,

At what point does having and updating a Facebook or MySpace page go from keeping up with what the kids are doing, to sad and depressing stalker behavior?

Facebook Fanatic

Dear Tic,

Once you sign any letter for advice "fanatic," some kind of confession is being implied. It is not clear to me whether you are: 1) keeping up with YOUR kids; 2) getting into contact with youth in general; 3) using "what the kids are doing" to stay in touch with your own friends.

1. It is one thing to monitor the content that your own kids are putting onto networking sites, but if that is what you need to do to find out what is going on in the lives of your kids, then there are lots of issues in your family that to be tackled. The question becomes, is it possible for you to be a sad and depressed stalker of your own kids?

2. But if these are not your own kids, and you are up on Facebook and MySpace just to get a handle on youth culture, then what is it you are doing in contact with young people that has you wondering if you are a sad and depressed stalker?

3. Most likely you meant that you are using Facebook and Myspace, the tools of kids, to keep up with people from your own generation. That is what I do too.

So Tic, while your letter strikes me as just a little bit creepy given possibilities 1 and 2, I am going to answer the least creepy possibility, which is 3.  On that basis, I also relate to your letter. A whole bunch of people I had lost touch with are appearing on Facebook and contacting me and calling me a "friend." You know how that makes me feel? Warm and connected. So I agree that we are friends. And then sometimes, and I realize I am pushing the boundary here, I actually send them an e-mail.

Then I wonder to myself: Am I being weird? Is this person who has told me I'm their friend, actually wanting to know how I met my wife and all about our young child and my new book and my secret life as an advice columnist? If I ask them what THEY have been doing for the past 15 years (or 20 or 25), is that prying? What if they just wanted to add me as a "friend" because they like to have it reported on their profile that "Kimberly Preston of Calgary, Alberta has 37,416 friends." Maybe she does not mean anything more by "friend" than she meant 19 years ago on a frigid night in Prince Albert when she told me that we could be "friends," and I dug an emotional hole and hid myself from any vulnerability to women for three years before I could finally move on, and now here it is after 19 years when I had not heard word one but with the miracle of the internet she wants to make good on this promise, and make me friend number 37,417.

No matter how I sort this out, I still feel like a jerk and I still wonder if others, especially those on my "friends" list, think the same. So, Tic, I feel your pain. I too wonder when my friendly interest is being interpreted as creepy sad stalker behavior.

The rule of thumb for almost any social behavior is that if you are establishing a pattern relationally and the other person in the relationship is asking you to break that pattern, and then you ignore that request and continue in that pattern of behavior, you are a jerk. (I use the word "jerk" advisedly as this is a family friendly site. Also I belong to a professional association that would frown on my publishing any euphamism that rhymes with "grass knoll.")

The behaviors themselves range in terms of their creepiness from naive presumption to unnerving assertiveness to aggravated battery. We are not speaking only in terms of relationships where sex or the dream of it plays a role. Most of my jerk-like creepiness has been a function of being naively presumptuous most of my life, and in most situations sex was not what I was being presumptuous about.

For me, the problem has been that I assume that people are as instantly comfortable with me as I am with them, which leads to the next assumption, that these near perfect strangers share my sense of humor. Many have been the times that my early efforts at rapport have inspired others to gesture back to me with a certain highly communicative finger that lets me know their wish that I would, in this family-friendly effort to draw a euphamistic parallel, "go climb a grass knoll."

Many jerks of this type (i.e. people like me) did not understand that the other person was serious the first time in asking them to stop the disturbing or unwelcome behavior (which, in my case, is telling jokes). Once that is understood it is often too late to make amends, the bridge having been burned by the jerk's own well-meaning but self-absorbed cluelessness. This may come in the form of having your e-mails blocked, or in being kicked off a particular chat site, or getting complaints so that your "Face" or "Space" profile is removed and your membership is canceled. When things like this happen, the harmless non-stalking types of jerk regret it and kick themselves and don't try to bother getting back in touch because they are utterly mortified and would be embarrassed to see that person again.

You might be sad and depressed and feeling like a grass knoll. But if you are not persistent in trying to establish the relationship, then you are definitely not a stalker. The stalker is someone who has been rebuffed repeatedly and yet still tries the same relational strategies with the person who is shutting them out.

In addition to being clueless, stalkers are remorseless. Many stalkers carry around with them a psychopathic sense of entitlement, along the line of "I have a crush on this person so this person OWES me love in return." Or, "I really want this job and I'm not going to leave the company's owner alone until I get it." Or, "I'm lonely and I went to college with this guy's Dad so he's calling me a friend on his Facebook so I'm going to share my deepest secrets with him and then he will be motivated to share his deepest secrets with me and then we will be connected and loyal to each other."

From within this sense of entitlement, stalkers begin by trying to awaken a sense of obligation in their object of their attention, by trying to impress them in one way or other. The sincerity in the stalker is designed, it is intended, it is supposed, to motivate the right response, such as a job offer or an agreement to marry. As the sincerity fails to motivate the desired response, the stalker becomes increasingly frustrated.

The stalker cannot stand rejection, even though that is exactly what the creepy behavior provokes. As the rejections mount, the stalker graduates to strategies that are more intimidating, until the object of attention finally becomes a target for violent revenge.

I have not looked any of this up. My use of the word "psychopathic" is not intended to be taken as a professional opinion on a stalker's mental health profile. That is not my profession and nothing I write on this website ever amounts to a diagnosis or legal advice or anything else that can result in my butt getting sued. I draw most of these conclusions from how these issues are discussed on crime dramas on television. For clinical and legal explanations of stalking, look somewhere else.

The question you are asking is if YOU have crossed the line into being a stalker, and my answer is, I doubt it. You sound remorseful and you don't seem to have a sense of entitlement.

No matter how you boil it down, the internet cannot provide authentic relationship. I suggest that you start attending a church along with its small group study programs, get into a night class, and/or choose some sort of affinity group or club; in other words, get involved with something which requires interaction so that others will interact with you and you with them. Here are some concrete examples: rehearsing with church or community choirs, or getting involved in amateur theater, or taking a pottery class, or joining a poetry circle, or getting into dancing lessons, are things that create interaction.

Many lonely people don't understand that these are the real opportunities, much more than just attending concerts and shows and gallery openings and church services, or working out at the gym, and they mean a lot more than the virtual relationships available in cyberspace. Get involved where personal interaction and relationship is in the nature of the involvement.

You will still have time for your computer pages; you will find that as they become less central to your life, you will also have more interesting content to share because your life will have gotten a lot more interesting.

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