Don’t worry: I’m not going to tell you not to post pictures of yourself drunk or exposed on Facebook because future employers might look at your profile, or tell you not to write about how "totally wasted” you got last night on your Wall because, again, prospective employers might read it. There are other articles you can read on that, and I do suggest considering the advice given in those articles. What I want to talk about is the other side of Facebook, the side that allows creeps to spy on you.
I got into FB about halfway through my freshman year of college. I didn’t use it much; mostly I just kept in contact with distant family and a couple of people FB called ‘friends’ but whom I had no plans to see anytime in the near future. At the time, I listed myself as being in a relationship. It felt a little dorky, and I certainly wasn’t planning on writing overtures to my ‘sweetheart’ like other people do on their Walls, but it was the truth. A year later, my status changed to single, and I added a couple more friends and family, but still didn’t use it much. The only profile picture was something silly, like a cat or a dog I’d never met but found on Google.
Another year later, and I was using FB to look at pictures of my niece and nephew. Their parents were horribly lazy about posting new pictures and instead hogged all of them on their hard-drives, so my use was still pretty limited. I’d learned about Pete’s new career choice, Anna’s almost marriage, Holly’s niece, Catie’s law classes, and Alex’s new beau. I also heard from my brothers how each of their kids were doing, how many steps they’d taken that day, what words they were saying, what hand signs they knew. Phone conversations with my brothers tend to be difficult as one is usually on-call and the other is running after his daughter, so FB allowed us to talk more leisurely, and often after the kids were already in bed and phone calls could no longer be made to ensure the kids slept through the night. It also saved a lot of money in calls to Canada to talk to my sister.
I think I’m beginning to sound like a rep for Facebook. Of course, there are also things I dislike about FB, or rather the culture that exists inside it: the pseudo-familiarity people have with one another as they have even former 'enemies' and people they’ve never met or spoken to as ‘friends;’ the competition to have the most ‘friends;’ the way it’s been used in the past (and present) for bullying; the voyeuristic nature of FB, as people can see what you did today, what you had for dinner, and even how much you dislike a certain class. I still have my account, though, as I still enjoy most aspects of FB, even while I dislike others.
But there are other, more unsavory aspects of Facebook. Like nuclear fission, FB can be used for evil as well as good. I’d heard other people talk about using FB to ‘stalk’ people they went to school with or used to date, but the term was always used lightly, jokingly, and perhaps embarrassedly. They weren’t actually stalking, but were just curious about how those people were doing, even though they had no desire to contact them and may not have even been friends with them. It’s a desire I’ve felt before and acted on once or twice. This morning, though, I saw just how ugly that ‘stalking’ can be when my (abusive) ex—yes, the one from earlier—sent me a message. His last name had been spelled differently, leaving me uncertain who it was. The message was something stupid, and yet had an air of creepiness to it. He wanted me to put up a profile picture (I’d still not put one up and had even taken down the silly ones from before) to show people “how cute [I] look.”
Reading it, I was reminded of a conversation I had with a friend about the pictures people post on FB. In many of the pictures people post, they don’t look glamorous, but have disheveled hair and are wearing dirty clothes. The way I grew up, pictures were supposed to be taken when you looked your best. The idea of taking a picture when you look…not your best was completely foreign and incomprehensible to me. My friend told me that pictures aren’t about looking your best, but about capturing a particular moment in time. The purpose of the pictures isn’t to prove to others how great you can look, but to remind yourself of that moment.
My ex’s message left me feeling rather sick. I’ve spent the better part of the last year and a half since I left him trying to work through the trauma he caused, and have had great success. His contacts have been few but terrifying. Finding that one of the places I use to connect and keep in touch with others is also used by him to spy on me, I was angry and annoyed. I took action, though, and I blocked him from viewing my profile, and then changed my privacy settings so only friends can view my profile, and people who search for me cannot see my friends or my profile, but only my name and the blank space that is my profile picture.
This may seem like paranoia to some, but those who have left abusers will understand why I took those precautions. The fact is if you don’t have privacy settings on your account, anyone can look at your profile, whether it’s someone you went to school with and were not very fond of, or a prospective employer, or a past partner you don’t want to talk to. There are many privacy settings to use, and Facebook also has a new feature that lets its users create a screen name for themselves, which can add more safety while also allowing family and friends to find you more easily (especially true if your last name happens to be Smith and your first name is John or Mary).
I could add in here some scary stories from newspaper articles about people who stalk through Facebook or murderers who find their targets through the site, but that kind of sensationalism feels a little cheap. The point is we have to consider who might be seeing us when we use a social networking site. For all the ways I love and hate FB, I know to be cautious with it.