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Stalking your ex on Facebook is creepy … and bad for you

New research from Dr. Tara Marshall at Brunel University has found that Facebook surveillance of ex-romantic partners may disrupt post-breakup recovery and personal growth. That’s bad news, because earlier…

Personal insight can be gained from one’s use – or misuse – of social media. Olga Palma/Wikimedia

New research from Dr. Tara Marshall at Brunel University has found that Facebook surveillance of ex-romantic partners may disrupt post-breakup recovery and personal growth.

That’s bad news, because earlier this year Veronika Lukacs found that almost 90% of people keep tabs on their exes using Facebook.

In the Brunel study, bad breakups were linked to a greater likelihood of Facebook stalking. That, in turn, contributed to current distress, negative feelings, desire and longing for the ex.

Remaining Facebook friends but not “offline friends” after a breakup was associated with less personal growth and poorer post-breakup functioning, given Facebook could be a source of emotionally damaging news (such as an ex’s involvement in a new relationship).

But remaining both online and offline friends led to lower levels of negative feelings, sexual desire and longing for an ex-partner, perhaps because exposure to the ex’s banal Facebook posts destroyed any remaining attraction.

Is stalking endemic to networked publics?

Facebook stalking is so common that when the Break-up Notifier service opened in 2011, to provide notifications when a contact’s relationship status changed, 3.6m users signed up in one week, Facebook slowed to a crawl and the service was banned.

Socially awkward penguin stalker

We should not be suprised that stalking is so integral to Facebook. University of California researcher Danah Boyd argued in 2007 that networked publics have four properties:

  • Persistence: digital objects are infinitely transferable and storable
  • Searchability: digital objects are easily found
  • Replicability: digital objects are infinitely and perfectly reproducible
  • Invisible audiences: digital objects are seen by an unknowably large audience

The last of these, invisible audiences, is crucial to stalking. It also seems to be a necessary evil for Social Network Service (SNS) popularity. For many years Japanese SNS Mixi showed the “footprints” of those who had viewed a user’s profile.

While this led to initial growth, it was turned off in 2011 because of social problems concerning being seen and reciprocality.

Facebook groups recently introduced reading receipts to prevent lurking, angering and stressing many users.

Using Facebook for personal insight

Indirectly, both Marshall’s and Kuvacs' research points to new ways of thinking about personal insight.

Facebook collects information about “people and the connections they have to everything they care about”. The data is imperfect, but as Forbes describes, this “social graph” is as exploitable a resource as crude oil.

Until recently, the exploitability of this data was rather asymmetrical. Specifically, Facebook and marketers could dig into it but users were more or less limited to browsing it.

Now, however, a growing number of services are allowing individuals to dig into their own Facebook data. Jeremy Keeshin’s Facebook Friends Rankings bookmarklet reveals how much you are viewing the pages of contacts, and perhaps insight into whether your habits are helpful or harmful.

The Facebook search bar autocompletes search queries. Keeshin’s bookmarklet reveals the numbers used to rank the order of autocomplete options. The more negative the number, the more Facebook thinks you are looking for that individual.

The general consensus of six undergraduates I work with, who used the bookmarklet last night, was that the ranking was fairly accurate but had some discrepancies.

Firstly, the numerical difference between “first ranked” and others ranged from -1.7 to -8, but the difference between second through tenth ranked was much more gradual, usually varying by about 0.2.

Facebook, it seems, weights first place very highly but other places not so much.

Secondly, for reasons unknown there was usually at least one person on the list who the students' claimed was not a regular interactant. This may have been because of stated relationships (i.e. family relationships recorded and acknowledged on the site).

In three instances boyfriends/girlfriends appeared first in the list but in two other instances family members or relatives showed up in the top ten, despite low levels of interactivity.

The ranking reflects changes in activites very rapidly, but only public activities (likes, comments, and wall posts). People with whom the students had been intensively private messaging recently did not show up near the top of the list.

Wolfram Alpha and Gabi: details, details, details

While Keeshin’s bookmarklet is a single-purpose measure, many more detailed tools are also available.

Wolfram Alpha’s Personal Analytics for Facebook allows you to see the demographics of your contacts – names, relationships, places, jobs, purchases, likes.

It also provides you with details on how you use Facebook and all associated apps. So you can find out when and how often you post, from what app, when you post photographs and who and where you tag, the average length of your status updates, and much, much more.

If you own an iPhone, Gabi represents a new way to think about Facebook. Gabi provides structured ways of asking questions about you and your friends on Facebook.

Such as: how many of your local contacts are single versus in a relationship, and which of your photographs is the most liked or commented on.

These services do not provide fully symmetrical access to the full social graph, as some developers advocate given that it is, indeed, our data.

But while we work for that, along with fighting to protect the privacy of that data, it is certainly valuable to have more objective personal insight into one’s social media presence and that of one’s contacts.

Join the conversation

8 Comments sorted by

  1. Sean Lamb

    Science Denier

    Perhaps this article might have been improved by a definition of what constitutes stalking.

    I say this because when I first joined this site a number people - including I might say academics - visited my facebook page and made insensitive and hurtful comments about my lack of friends. Comments which to this day cause me grievous distress.

    Were these people stalking me?*

    Someone looking at the facebook page of an ex might not represent someone in a completely carefree state, but it seems to me fairly human and to call it stalking is a little over the top. What about trying to ask - very casually of course - a mutual friend what an ex is doing these days?

    *Please say yes.

    1. Sean Rintel

      Lecturer in Strategic Communication at University of Queensland

      In reply to Sean Lamb

      You're right to point out that "stalking" has a number of definitions. The version proposed here is one that many people (especially young people) self-identify with as a common practice with reasonably benign intent. There are of course worse versions, and we shouldn't treat them all lightly.

    2. Sean Lamb

      Science Denier

      In reply to Sean Rintel

      I see, sort of like Swedish rape then?

  2. Yoron Hamber


    Facebook is what all Secret services, and other governmental institutions, ever have dreamed about. You just not hang out yourself there, but even better, you hang out your friends to dry too :)

    Stupidity seems the new norm for being a social animal.
    Are you?

  3. Greg Canning

    General Practitioner

    Sean, is there any data on the breakdown by sex or sexual orientation of those doing the post relationship stalking? It would be interesting to see, especially given the high and equal levels of physical violence in young dating couples, and the continued suppression of evidence on bi-directionality in IPV/DV.

    1. Sean Lamb

      Science Denier

      In reply to Greg Canning

      This article isn't about stalking - it is about checking out facebook pages after a relationship is over. Since 90% of people supposedly do it, it will be both sexes and orientations.

      It is pwned! stalking - a completely different beast.

    2. Greg Canning

      General Practitioner

      In reply to Sean Lamb

      Its a question of semantics sean, raising your voice in an argument is not violence, except if you are male and your female spouse is applying for a protection order or a family court judge is assessing risk for violence against "women and THEIR children" it's hardly a stretch to conclude in these same circumstances checking an ex's status on facebook would be considered stalking in the legal sense. Facebook is featuring more prominently in courts these days and there are several well documented examples of women reacting violently to finding a relationship status changed on face book , recent examples of driving vehicles into the male ex's workplaces come to mind.

  4. Comment removed by moderator.