Content warning: this essay contains descriptions of sexual coercion
I didn’t have a computer in 2002, and my only phone hung on the wall of the apartment I shared with two other University of Illinois students. So when I wanted to write the guy who had taken my hand the night before and forcefully jerked himself off with it, I must have gone to a campus computer lab to email him from the only account I’d ever had with the message that I no longer wanted to see him.
After he called and, audibly shaken, apologized, we never spoke again. On September 28, 2018, however, I got a LinkedIn notification with his name in it: He had viewed my profile. I know the date, even though LinkedIn erases profile views after 90 days, for two reasons. First, I took a screenshot. I don’t usually take screenshots of notifications, but I took this one for the same reason I would have known the date even without it. September 28, 2018, was the day after Christine Blasey Ford testified before the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee about her assault at the hands of future Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh.
It felt so good to have data on someone, and a screenshot of something he had done
This fact seemed to give the notification significance. Ford had described an experience far more traumatizing and less ambiguous than mine, but there were certain similarities. A dark bedroom, a social occasion, a sudden escalation. A few minutes of tape preserved in memory long after everything before and after them had gone dark. I can’t even say for sure whether I was 18 or 19; whether it was 2002 or 2001. But while Kavanaugh denied being on the premises, my guy was implicitly implicating himself. What else but a memory of the incident, triggered by the news, could have made him look me up? It felt so good to have data on someone, and a screenshot of something he had done, incontrovertible evidence where before all I’d had was a memory ripped jaggedly from its spine and crumpled in a dusty corner of my mind. But I made sure my profile was set to anonymous before I looked back.
In 2005, the social media network Friendster introduced a feature called Who’s Viewed Me, which “removed a layer of anonymity by force,” as Joanne McNeil writes in her 2020 book Lurking, a people’s history of the (American) internet that reclaims its title activity as a curiosity-driven good. Friendster’s effort was controversial. Users complained that their privacy had been violated, and many eventually opted out of the feature. Since then, other companies have found ways to monetize users’ fear of exposure alongside our desire to see who glances our way. LinkedIn introduced Who’s Viewed Your Profile in 2007; today, if you want to see that list, you have to turn off your own anonymity or pay at least $29.99 a month. Between 2013 and 2020, most major platforms — starting with Snapchat and now including Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter — began showing users who had viewed temporary posts, which most of these services call Stories. While Stories are usually described as ephemeral, the visibility of their viewers is at least as definitive.
When scholars write about invisible audiences, the dominant valence is negative: danah boyd, in her work on teenage social media users, describes the complications that arise when adults such as parents or college admissions officers lurk uncomprehendingly (a teen might be unjustly shamed or punished, or their plans for the future might be jeopardized). But the idea of an audience you can’t see or fully conceptualize is also enticing. As McNeil writes, “Perhaps no one ever signed your GeoCities page guestbook, responded to your comment on a BBS, or left a comment on your blog, but you could never be sure the words were for nothing, read by no one — no one could feel totally alone. Perhaps someone was watching: lurkers, warm and indirect, good people, potential friends, even — not creeps, but maybe a little bit weird.” The presence of lurkers is both potentially ominous and potentially wonderful and, for that reason, doubly compelling. Even platforms that don’t deanonymize viewers have begun to conjure their shadows. TikTok, like YouTube, shows you anonymized data for your video views, as does Twitter for your tweets.
Even platforms that don’t deanonymize viewers have begun to conjure their shadows
Visibility features draw our attention to what is still invisible, offering concrete but limited evidence that more or different people are looking at us, or thinking of us, than we might otherwise have imagined. A list of people who viewed your Stories offers hints about who looks at your posts, while at the same time raising questions about who’s scrolling without tapping. More conspicuously, it raises questions about those whose names do appear. It’s difficult to get over the sense that these tiny but visible specks of information must mean something, even if you don’t know what it is. And since visible lurking is visible only to the person being viewed, there’s an intimacy to it, even when it’s entirely coincidental. Part of the appeal, and embarrassment, of being viewed is that it sometimes feels like catching one’s viewer in the act. In this sense, it resembles a “deep like”: one that comes long after the liked post would normally appear in the liker’s feed, perhaps because their finger slipped in the course of lurking your profile.
“Visible lurking” is, of course, an oxymoron. When we know we’re visible, and most of us probably do, the mere act of looking can also become in some way communicative, an expression that sometimes feels more meaningful than just thumbing a heart obligatorily. Unlike the algorithms that track our clicks and cursor movements, we have limited ability to perceive each other’s online comings and goings. There is no instantaneous feeling of a gaze on the back, or the sound of a person in the next room. So we learn to manipulate the means available: As with the chat ellipsis, so with the view. We might watch our friends’ Stories to show them we’re there, just a screen away, clicking through pictures of dozing pets or homemade dinners to make them feel supported. On the other side, scrolling through their Story’s viewers, they might get the ambient sense of being in company. But anything we can manipulate will be manipulated maliciously: A 2013 BuzzFeed report on LinkedIn’s “stalker problem” quotes multiple people whose harassers used profile views as a tactic. “The same person views my profile nearly every day, just to let me know that he can see my profile here,” one of them said. “This guy is simply messing with me, and I don’t know why.”
As we might know from reading Moby-Dick: elusive, symbolic, and wordless presences are ideal projection screens for attempts at meaning-making and imaginative narration. When someone reacts to something we have posted, it tends to take the form of a review, a flurry of applause, an afterword. When we see who has viewed us, we’re not seeing a reaction but an action. Platforms shrink communication to fit their own narrow and dangerous parameters. But visibility features shrink it so much — to the smallest, most trivial possible units of attention — that the interpretive possibilities feel, paradoxically, infinite.
Views compel the imagination most strongly when there is some barrier to further communication. The lurker and the lurked-on silently mythologize each other
I saw, reciprocating the guy’s visit to my profile, that he appeared to live in Washington, D.C. and work as a lawyer. It intrigued me to imagine the various feelings that could have motivated his search: Did he have ambitions he suddenly feared would be stymied by me or someone else? Was he trying to figure out whether I was the type to publicly name him? Maybe he was feeling guilty. He had sounded truly remorseful on the phone 16 years earlier (at least that was what I told myself). Then again, maybe he was just bored at work. Was he lurking in full awareness of his visibility? Or did he fail to realize I’d be able to see he’d viewed me?
The unknowns were exciting, with almost literary potential. I felt vindicated that the roles we had played were now part of a media narrative that cast him as the villain. My reaction as a teenager had been instinctual, not rooted in any kind of feminism, and I had second guessed it. Now, despite my qualms about #MeToo’s celebrity-industrial swerve, its coincidence with his name’s appearance left me with a sense of righteousness. At the same time, I wanted to keep alive the possibility that he had evolved — for reasons that had little to do with him. I’ve also been the person in the bad guy’s role. The opportunity to extend interpretive generosity to someone else — to allow for the possibility of redemptive reinvention — was also an opportunity to extend it to myself.
Views compel the imagination most strongly precisely when there is some barrier to further communication, which is just the sort of situation that often leads to lurking in the first place. Instead, the lurker and the lurked-on silently mythologize each other.
Along with lurking on others, seeing who has lurked me is virtually the only thing I have used LinkedIn for. Back in September 2018 I had subscribed, and immediately canceled my subscription to give myself 30 days to see my very few lurkers anonymously. I did so again as “research” for this essay. Of the 23 views I had accumulated in the previous 90 days, 15 were anonymous, four allowed only their employer to be displayed, one was a friendly former coworker, and two were people I didn’t know who worked in similar fields. One was the same guy who had also happened to view my profile on September 28, 2018. It’s clear now that everything meaningful I know about this guy is something I learned 19 years ago.