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Facebook Creep

The general consensus is that everybody has, at one point or another, Facebook creeped or Facebook stalked.  Sometimes it’s limited to ex-lovers, sometimes it’s completely unlimited and random.  Sometimes a general Facebook browse can take you on a two hour journey of clicks until you find your self sifting through the pictures of your coworker’s cousin’s ex’s dog’s leg surgery from last summer and you think to yourself, How did I get here?

Twitter specializes in 140 character statuses, Foursquare in check-ins, and Instagram in pictures, but in terms of providing a format to paint as detailed a picture as possible using a wide range of information about a single person, Facebook has everybody else beat.  Not only does it act as a centralized access point for all of our social networks, it has its own applications for sharing statuses, photos, likes and dislikes, events, videos, relationships, check-ins, whatever our heart’s desire.  As much as many of us might hate it, Facebook is the most popular social network. Half the United States population has an account.  An entire subculture has sprung up around this online environment, complete with its own standards of practice and terminology.

If we take Marshall McLuhan at his word, that “the medium is the message,” than the environment Facebook creates communicates a desire to share the details of our lives with certain other people (depending on privacy settings).  Its layout is conducive to the behavior: filing all of your recent activity in an easy-to-read manner.  It’s no wonder that so many people participate in Facebook creeping, which Urban Dictionary calls:

An act in which one looks at a friend’s and/or stranger’s Facebook profile, pictures, and recent activity usually of the opposite sex. Also the act of getting random information from a person’s Facebook profile by snooping around. Everyone denies their involvement in this act (when in reality most people do it when bored), then in turn accuse someone else of doing it later.

Without getting bogged down too much by different privacy settings or individual usage of the website, I want to explore the bad reputation that Facebook creeping has and the negative connotation of the phrase.  Why do so many Facebook users make a moral judgement about an activity that is only the full utilization of the medium?

Impression Management

Sociologist Erving Goffman used theater as a metaphor for people’s actions in everyday life.  He described the self in two parts: front stage (that which we portray to others) and backstage (that which we keep to ourselves).  The maintenance of the two parts of the self can be called face work or impression management.  In the Facebook creeping relationship there are two players – the creeper and the creeped.  Both are engaging in their own form of impression management.  The creeped has filled her Facebook profile with digital data.  Consciously or not, she has carefully crafted for herself an online identity, a projection of how she wants those in her network to see her, a front stage self.  The creeper, in contrast, goes about his business in secret.  Although he is only sifting through information that has been made available to him, he is participating in an activity which the culture around Facebook has deemed inappropriate. Exposure of the potentially embarrassing behavior might cause social problems, so he keeps this behavior back stage.  Conflict occurs when this back stage behavior is exposed to the public or to the creeped, as the below video demonstrates.  This conflict reinforces the negative ideas about Facebook creeping.

Context Collapse

In his research on Vlogging, Professor Michael Wesch defines the online phenomenon of context collapse.  (Though he is writing specifically about YouTube, his theory works with other blogs and social media outlets.) On Facebook, everyone in your network is a potential audience to everything you post.  Although this seems like common knowledge, the average user may not be cognizant of it when using the medium.  When the creeped posts a photo album of a beach vacation, she imagines a specific audience for the content: good friends, maybe family, and generally people who are close enough to her to take the time to look through it.  She does not imagine those on the fringes of her social circles may stumble upon it out of boredom, or seek it out due to curiosity about her life or looks.  She is not consciously aware of the context collapse that occurs Facebook.  This conflict of imagined audience and actual audience may be the cause of the general creeped-out feeling you get when, say, someone outside your inner circle references your Facebook life.

Language Shaping Thought

The words stalking and creeping were attached to “real life” behaviors before they were ever a part of cyberculture, and they have a more negative connotation offline.  Wikipedia calls stalking “unwanted or obsessive attention by an individual or group toward another person.”  In the “real world,” stalking can progress to harassment or intimidation, which can also happen in more serious cases online.  But although the somewhat harmless act of peeking into the lives of people who have given you permission to do so seems far less serious, our only words from it come from our experiences in the analog world.  I said earlier that a subculture has sprung up around Facebook with its own terminology, but sometimes these terms are inadequate.  Stalking and creeping on Facebook might be less condemnable behaviors were they given names like exploring or even appraising.  But instead, you’re a creep, you’re a weirdo

What of your own backstage Facebook behaviors?  Do you find yourself Facebook creeping out of boredom or curiosity?  Do you stalk certain people or is it random?  Visit Facebook > Activity Log > Search to see your own Facebook search behavior.

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