Cyberstalking my boyfriend’s ex is almost as ingrained in my morning routine as brewing coffee. After reading the Times and catching up on correspondence, I search for her username on Twitter and Instagram, then skim the archives of party pictures from the previous night on a couple websites.
The adrenaline rush of navigating through this online simulacrum of her life—God forbid I accidentally follow her, or retweet, “favorite,” or “like” something she posts—is addictive. So too is the satisfaction of collecting details, however small. She drank champagne at lunch yesterday! She owns yellow shoes! She’s about due for a haircut again!
Any personal mandate to refrain from Googling the woman never lasts for more than a day, since it’s so damn easy to look her up, and (until now) no one has known about my habit. Of course, that the instinct to stop lurks on my consciousness demonstrates that the practice might not be all that healthy. Why waste time and energy dwelling on my partner’s past unless I’m threatened by it?
The thing is, cyberstalking doesn’t leave me riddled with insecurities. I find it satisfying to demystify this woman previously cast in my position—to confirm that she’s as prone to a funny face or a poor outfit choice (as human) as I am.
With so much public information literally at our fingertips, out-of-sight-out-of-mind is a lofty directive. But for those of us who can’t defeat the itch to dig, is the Internet enabling a new brand of supercharged cyber envy, or is it empowering us to relieve a natural stress?
In its extremes, cyber-fueled jealousy can be damaging. MTV’s True Life: I have Digital Drama highlights this effect with Nicole, a self-declared “Facebook junky” who scrutinizes every aspect of her boyfriend’s online existence. “The Internet is ruining our relationship,” she declares, before demanding an all-access pass to both his cell phone and computer. As you might guess, things don’t exactly work out between the two.
Biological anthropologist Helen Fisher, PhD, writes, “If you can’t stop spying or obsessing (and many of us can’t), it’s time to consult a mental health professional.” Fisher warns that snooping through a lover’s emails is a sign of obsession and that these types of actions—whether founded on insecurity or a justifiable lack of trust—can lead to ugly break-ups, and even violence.
In other words, the very technology designed to unify us can rip us apart.
Even in its tamer iterations, cyberstalking can be self-destructive. When Ami Angelowizc learned that her ex-boyfriend was engaged, she couldn’t resist the urge to look through his Facebook albums, growing sadder and more self-hating with every glimpse of the soon-to-be-betrothed. Today, Angelowizc has a no-cyberstalking policy and advises unfriending and unfollowing exes.
But Fisher also notes that jealousy—a phenomenon documented not only in humans, but also in chimps and bluebirds—evolved for positive reasons. On a primordial level, the emotion discourages abandonment by a mate, thereby increasing the likelihood that a couple’s young will survive. And when someone is secretly flattered by a hint of jealousy, it can spark romantic affection that strengthens the relationship.
In other words, if approached the right way, a couple could even benefit from a little Internet induced envy.
In a Daily Strength forum focused on jealousy, user CrossingtheBorder admits to monitoring her boyfriend’s Facebook page and those of his exes to ensure that their interactions are platonic. She sees no cause for concern because she doesn’t devote so much time to cyberstalking (a term she despises for its negative connotation) that it interferes with her life. What could be wrong with keeping her jealousy in check by looking at public information?
Similarly, I would argue that what I learn during my morning searches is ultimately rewarding. I’m not naïve enough to think that this woman’s digital presence is an accurate reflection of her real life, but I do use the information I gather to reassure myself that she was just SO WRONG for him. He would have yawned at that party she attended, I tell myself. Or, I know he would hate that outfit she’s wearing. The fact that I spend time hunting down my former competition might just be a symptom of passion for my boyfriend. Truthfully, the worst I’ve ever felt while cyberstalking is silly.
So as long as it’s not hurting anyone, why feel anything but positive about it? Maybe it’s time to normalize, or at least talk openly about how much we keep tabs on the lives of those who touch us from a distance—because we can, and because it’s not necessarily bad for anyone involved. In a way, my boyfriend’s ex is just the irresistibly cuddly star of a Panda-cam, luring its audience back repeatedly without offering anything new. The main risk is that I discover too much information, such as her romantic involvement with an acquaintance—in which case I might suffer a bit. Until that threat surfaces, though, it’ll be tough to desist.
Recently on Jezebel, Katie J.M. Baker confessed to exploiting her journalism skills to research the famous actress her ex dated after her. Ultimately, Baker ends up meeting the target of her investigation and the two become friends, only to learn that their online fixations with each other are mutual.
Could it be that my boyfriend’s ex is cyberstalking me too? If so, and if she’s reading this, keep it up! And feel free to make irrational conclusions or to insult me—as long the habit doesn’t start to eat at you. Regardless of how you feel about cyber-stalking, the fact is that it’s up to each of us to assess our tolerance for the Web’s green nectar, and to manage our intake accordingly.
Mélanie Berliet is a New York City based writer and producer. Her work has appeared in Vanity Fair, New York, Elle, Cosmopolitan and Self among other publications. For more of her work, visit her website or follow her on Twitter.