New Feelings Involuntary Lurking

As social media have evolved into platforms for sharing pain, I hover because I don’t know what to say

NEW FEELINGS is a column devoted to the desires, moods, pathologies, and identifications that rarely had names before digital media. Read the other installments here

In high school I lurked at 80 kilometers an hour. Terrified of being recognized in my family’s white Chevy cavalier, I didn’t dare turn onto my crush’s road and drive by his house. Instead, I stayed on the two-lane highway and felt an urgent dread needling my breastbone as I counted down to the turnoff. Fields and forest flashed past, and as I drew level with the mouth of his street, the feeling exploded: everything — the tarmac’s yellow line, the roadside tangle of cow’s parsnips and chicory, and the lettered signpost blaring the name of the street where he lived — blazed with a white light of humiliation and need. A split second, and I drove on, already wistful for the unacknowledged moment that left me lonely.

Through a screen, personal information is cheap, and unseen seeing is the default

Traditional lurking always carried a risk of discovery. As an emotional outlet, my highway lurking worked fine, but as an intelligence-gathering mission it wasn’t great. It was always obvious that trying to see without being seen — to know without being known — was a dead end. Through a screen, personal information is cheap, and unseen seeing is the default. The emotional coloration comes in carving a slice of this experience thin enough to differentiate lurking from creeping, stalking, or simply reading.

I’ve recently tipped over an invisible threshold on social media and become a lurker. I check Facebook and Twitter dozens of times a day, but I last tweeted a month ago, and my most recent status update was two months ago. I look at open Instagram accounts but don’t have an account of my own. My Slacks seem to get by fine with little or no input from me. My lurking is driven  by duty and fear rather than desire. I monitor social media the way I monitor the news — anxiously, with an eye to disaster. Who is suffering today? The likelihood that something terrible is about to happen or is, in fact, already happening without my knowledge makes posting anything from my small island of relative stability feel heartless. I nearly posted “How come no one on TV ever looks both ways before they cross the street? I keep thinking Julianna Margulies is going to get hit by a bus,” an hour before a man drove a van along a crowded sidewalk in Toronto, killing 10 people. This confluence of devastating event with flippant comment wouldn’t have been my fault, exactly. But it’s enough to make me want to keep my mouth shut.

Spectatorship seems like a positive, or at least neutral, spin to put on the act of watching others without participating. But for people to feel heard they need some detectable proof that other people are listening. I’ve found that the less I tweet or post myself, the less I heart, comment, or share. Liking or retweeting are relatively low-risk communication acts, but I’m in the grip of a new stage fright — I’ve lost the knack of showing my face. It’s the same self-consciousness that comes when I’m quiet too long in a group of people who are talking. If I say something now, I think, everyone will suddenly remember I’m here, and what if they’re not happy to see me?

Responding to the nice things, it seems to me, places one under obligation to respond to the hard things as well

My fear of engagement — fear of being seen, but also a fear of offending others by seeming to intrude upon conversations that don’t involve me — seems overwrought. People showing pictures of their toddler daughters lying in the grass looking up at the sky are choosing to make these photos public — presumably, they welcome or at least are prepared for reaction or comment. But as social media have evolved into platforms for sharing trauma and pain, I’m increasingly aware of how badly people are feeling. My finger hovers over the icon before I decide that saying “awww,” to myself, alone in my office, seems least likely to cause any unanticipated harm.

It may not seem as though liking a photo of cute children could hurt. But responding to the nice things, it seems to me, places one under obligation to respond to the hard things as well. Why should the person showing me their happy family be showered with positive attention and the person showing me their anger and sadness at intergenerational trauma get none? Yet responding to everything seems to devalue engagement, and flattens the differences in time and energy required to process wildly dissimilar types of posts. I’m starting to feel unmoored in my role in these networks of exchange, unable to tell the difference between appropriate and inappropriate attention, between too much and too little. White, cis-gendered, middle-class people like myself who relentlessly sad-face and retweet other people’s pain often seem to be doing little beyond immunizing themselves from blame.

As the line between social media and news media has blurred, I’ve felt myself retreating into the same exhaustion with regards to both. I feel obliged to know what’s going on, but I’m not sure why. I want to imbue my non-participation with an aura of monkish silence to give it dignity, but I’m not ready for renunciation. Leaving social media altogether makes it seem like I don’t care, even as signaling my presence makes me feel too exposed.

In spaces designed on the premise that looking and being looked at are social goods, I’m finding it hard to tell apart a desire to look from an obligation to witness

As it is, I feel like a ghost haunting a troubled town. I’m lingering outside the rows of lighted windows, not exactly hidden but not exactly seen. This can’t be a permanent state, but it’s unclear how to move from here to a sense of greater trust or agency within large digital spaces. The cure for dysfunctional platforms has, so far, been other dysfunctional platforms — it turns out any space open to large numbers of people can quickly become unsafe. From what I can see, social media’s undead are legion, skulking in the background — we’ve traded in a problematic status as unpaid content creators for another troublesome status as ambivalent consumers.

When flashing past the foot of someone’s street, the fantasy nature of the relationship was clear. I knew I was communing with an imagined ideal rather than with the pimpled boy who lived on the other side of the street sign. Physical proximity was thrilling because it wasn’t close enough for actual engagement. It also started from the assumption that the boy I liked barely knew I was alive — he certainly didn’t need my attention to complete him. Through the screen, in spaces designed on the premise that looking and being looked at are social goods, I’m finding it hard to tell apart a desire to look from an obligation to witness. The limits of appropriate looking dictate a moderate engagement, but an obligation to witness suggests maximal attention is owed to honor one another’s personhood.

Stalking and creeping carry clear negative connotations. But social media lurking feels to me more like a state of readiness — hovering might be a more apt word for it. If maintaining a social media presence has taken on the status of a job, hovering keeps one’s training up to date. I’m close enough to hear distress signals should they arise, and to seek the group should I need its information or validation. As my relationship with social media has aged, lurking has become a way to cope with an often false promise of reciprocity — that knowing each other better will make us kinder.

Linda Besner’s most recent book is Feel Happier in Nine Seconds. Her poetry and nonfiction have appeared in the New York Times Magazine, the Boston Review, the Globe & Mail, and Enroute, and aired on CBC Radio. She lives in Montreal.