Like many people of my generation, I often indulge in a wee bit of internet stalking. One minute I’m preparing to study for my exams, the next I’m instagram-stalking someone’s sister. Just a normal day in the life of Eliza.
Today was my final exam of my second year of university. I came home afterwards, and I was standing in the kitchen, making vegan macaroni cheese, living my best life. As I was waiting for the pasta to cook, I ran back to my bedroom to grab my phone. Another little stalk wouldn’t hurt, right? So I’m standing by the stove, stirring pasta with one hand and holding my phone in the other, two years deep into the instagram of some girl who I 1) have never met, and 2) am unlikely to ever meet, all because I’m too curious for my own good. I learnt her star sign, her profession, her relationship status, etc. I knew it was creepy, yet I couldn’t stop. Apart from a few moments of “aww, they have the same nose, that’s cute” there was no actual gratification of stalking her that directly related to her relation. Stalking her sibling was the gateway drug, because they were someone I knew personally, but stalking her gave me a different kind of high.
Because people are fascinating, dude. Maybe it’s the writer in me, but I love to observe people, especially when they are strangers to me.
After I’d eaten my macaroni cheese, watched some tv, and indulged in the guilt-free laziness that naturally follows the end of exams, a thought popped into my head: what do people see when they internet stalk me?
My facebook privacy settings are relatively tight, mostly because I don’t want people who bullied me in school to be able to see what’s going on in my life. (Which I suppose is ironic, given that I write incredibly personal blogs and post them on the internet, and my instagram and twitter aren’t private, but oh well, I’m a person of contradictions). But I know for a fact that at least two of my facebook friends like to internet stalk people in their spare time, so I decided I should probably check what it is they would find.
A few weeks ago I’d become really obsessed with cleaning up my online presence. I went back through my twitter and deleted any tweets relating to depression/anxiety/my mild obsession with tall blond eastern european guys (there were more tweets than you’d expect on that very niche topic). Yet somehow I forgot to purge my facebook. Tonight as I scrolled back through my past profile pictures, my initial reaction was “yikes, why did you ever think it was a good idea to post that online, girl?” Half the time I was amused, the rest of the time I just cringed. Overall, it was an interesting experience, watching the passage of time play out in hundreds of images of my face.
I’m not ugly. It’s taken me 20 years to be able to say that (if you saw my old profile pictures you’d understand why). I like how I look, almost all of the time. Sure, there are days when my hair needs a wash or I ate too much pasta and look horribly bloated. But overall, I’m happy with my body and my face and my general existence. I’ve finally reached the point in my life where I have decent self-esteem. But this “glow up” came relatively late. It’s only been within the past 10 months that I’ve lost 26lbs and gained a whole world of self-esteem.
What I find interesting, is now that I’m happier with my appearance/self/general existence, I post a lot less on social media. I post a lot fewer selfies, but also a lot less random crap. I used to post SO MUCH random crap. Tonight I had the urge to declutter my facebook the way I declutter my bedroom. Throwing old photos into a virtual bin bag because I can’t stand the way they clog up my history. I am no longer the hoarder I once was. I am ruthless in throwing away things that no longer serve me.
What I realised today is that our social media tells a story. It is the image of ourselves that we put out into the world. Or one of many images. My persona on twitter is different to my persona on facebook or my persona on instagram. I often joke that I have three personalities, but I never quite realised how much this is represented in my social media presence. When I look back through my old facebook posts, I can see how much I’ve changed. I don’t just mean externally, but also the way my personality has changed, the way my sense of humour has changed. The one thing that hasn’t changed is my values. I was posting about feminism in 2013, and I’m still posting about feminism in 2018. The core of me hasn’t changed as much as I like to think. There is some “true” part of me that links all my personas together.
We facebook stalk people for a variety of reasons. Sometimes it’s curiosity, sometimes it’s boredom, sometimes you have a crush on someone and need to find out their birthday so you can look at their astrology… Sometimes people live far away and you don’t see them anymore, so you have to find solace in their virtual presence. Whatever our reasons for online stalking are, at the end of the day, this is still virtual. It isn’t real life.
I’m an honest person, and everything I post online is real and true. I’m not trying to create the image of some perfect curated life, because that’s not who I am. But whether it’s facebook or instagram or twitter, or this very blog, I make a choice each time I post something. Sometimes those choices aren’t wise, and I go back and delete them, but that doesn’t undo the fact that it is a choice. Social media can be a glimpse of the truth, but it will never be the whole truth. I choose what information to give you. I started this blog recounting the tale of how I instagram-stalked someone’s sister, but I chose not to say why. It could have been my own sister, for all you know. (It’s not, we don’t have the same nose. But I could have left you to deduce that).
I am the narrator of this story, and I am calling the shots. I make stylistic choices, such as informal language (i.e. “dude”) and occasional use of slang or swear words. I make choices such as never mentioning people by name (because I don’t want to be THAT kind of blogger). I sometimes make choices which are wrong. There is a fine line between writing about my personal experiences, and writing about other people’s lives. I don’t always know who deserves ownership of some stories.
Everything I post on here is a choice, and I am accountable for it. Perhaps the reason I don’t post so much online these days is that, in this digital age, social media is our legacy. This blog is my legacy, my cringy facebook photos circa 2013 are my legacy, all my tweets from this morning about procrastinating studying are my legacy. This is what I let the world see of me, and I am in control of that image.
During my purge of my facebook profile this evening, I came across some photos of someone who used to be important to me. I thought I had deleted all evidence of our friendship over a year ago, and it was jarring to come across those pictures. It shocked me in a way that doesn’t happen when I see that person in real life. It was a moment frozen in time, an artefact from a history I had purposefully erased. I saw these lost moments with all the pain of hindsight, and I quickly threw them into the virtual bin bag. Not because I wanted to pretend it didn’t happen, but because I don’t want them to be part of the legacy I’m creating. I don’t want to be trapped in the same history book as the people who hurt me, because that hurt doesn’t control me or weaken me anymore. I am the author of my own life story, and I choose who gets to be a character in it.
There are people who were vastly significant in my life who I have no photos with. People who I’m not facebook friends with anymore, and I kind of regret that. There is no outward evidence that we once knew each other. If you crawl into the subterranean tunnels of facebook messenger you would see all the evidence of a short-lived story, written by two writers. You would see the bluntness on my part, the avoidance on their part. You would see the story started on a question mark and ended on ellipses. But if you looked at our social media, there would be no sign that we were anything more than strangers.
Social media never tells the full story, because unlike real life, time on social media is not linear. We can go back and erase our histories. The only thing we can’t erase is that erasure. I can’t go back and stop myself from unfriending someone. I can’t un-delete tweets I’ve already deleted. If I delete cringy photos of myself aged 15, I can’t bring them back.
Social media gives the opportunity to whittle away at our virtual past until there is nothing left. And maybe that’s why I post less random crap these days. Because I don’t want to look back in a year or so and cringe at what I once put out into the world wide web. Perhaps if I post less, and am more conscious of what I post, I won’t feel the need to erase my own backstory.
That said, I did just write an entire blog about facebook stalking, and admit to a few moderately creepy habits, so perhaps I do not yet practice what I preach. But life is a learning process, and I am constantly learning from my past mistakes. Happy stalking, people!