We have all heard someone say that they are “stalking” someone else, while referring to the action of looking up someone on google or on social media. This is not exactly stalking per se, as we all construct our presence online. In today’s blogpost I will talk about how we can “edit” ourselves online, some of the motivations, and how the accessibility of our digital footprint has changed how we relate to each other.
A good example that comes to mind when thinking about looking up people before meeting them in real life is for a job interview. Here, both parties will, to varying degrees, have looked each other up. You, as a candidate, will most likely have looked up information about the company that you will potentially work for, as well as the position that you have applied for. The HR board of the company will have most likely looked into the information you have provided them with, such as previous work experience, supervisors, colleagues and so on. Another example is when we are supposed to meet someone through mutual relations and we want to know a bit more about them before making their acquaintance. These are two very different scenarios, but they are both realistic and happen on a daily basis.
The new media are very useful when it comes to giving others an idea of who we are, or who we want to be, or even who we want them to believe we are. There can be many reasons why a person decides to present themselves online differently than how they are in real life. A good example is: “to conform and ‘fit in’ and to explore the advantages of anonymity.”* This of course depend on the media that we are referring to. It is especially true for websites such as blogs and the like, where people talk about things that interest them and their personality is not the main focus of their content. Therefore they are free to choose how they portray themselves, and very often choose to do so in vague terms and focus instead of the object of their interests and on creating content. This is usually not as much the case on social media. On these platforms people try instead to paint a picture that shows the good sides of their lives, often in a braggy style, as if to say “look how great my life is, I am travelling all over the world and own so many expensive objects” and so on. However, some people only use social media to keep in contact with family and friends, and these people usually have less annoying profiles and will probably share things that interest them instead of brag-posts.
It is interesting to see the difference between how people portray themselves online and their real selves in person. However, sometimes their online self is more authentic than their in-person self: “the ‘true self’ being the persona [online] when the user’s offline self is subject to family or societal pressure.”** This is sadly the case for many people. Their families or communities might condone a certain behaviour or activity that they perceive as part of their identities. As a result, many people opt to expressing themselves online as an outlet for their identities, while hiding from those geographically close to them in real life.
Looking up people online before meeting them is a double-edged sword. It can be an advantage, because you might learn some interesting information about them to use as a conversation starter. This, of course, should preferably be done without explicitly saying “What was your vacation in Morocco in 2017 like?” but rather introduce the topic as “What are your favorite destinations to go on holiday to?” or something more vague like that, otherwise it’s probably just going to be awkward (but again, it depends on the people involved in the interaction). It can also be a disadvantage: you could form a mental picture of them that is really far from reality, or form a lot of prejudices against them, and when the face-to-face interaction takes place it might not be as jenuine a it would have been without preconceptions about the other person.
This phenomenon of “looking up” someone has certainly been made easier thanks to the structure of social media nowadays, especially the function of “people you may know”, aimed at enlarging people’s social circles online and possibly also in real life. It is not necessarily a bad thing but it can certainly be used for both better or worse.
* and **: Bullingham, Liam, and Ana C. Vasconcelos. “‘The Presentation of Self in the Online World’: Goffman and the Study of Online Identities.” Journal of Information Science 39, no. 1 (February 2013): 101–12. doi:10.1177/0165551512470051, p. 110.