It’s easy to lose sight of reality in our technophilic times. Only the other day, my friend and I were shamelessly eavesdropping on someone’s conversation about her “issues with social media”. We listened with sympathy as she shouted her various stalking techniques into the face of her (visibly cowering) male friend. I feel bad recounting it here, but there are no privacy settings in coffee shops, love – sorry!
As she told him of her criminal search history and the mortifying mistakes she had made whilst obsessively tracking the every online move of this boy she’d known, he was laughing uneasily. Like, “Hahaha, this girl! She so crazy! I would never do that…” Whilst really he was thinking, “Ah yes. Jenny Green – winter term of second year. Those were dark, dark days.”
She hardly even knew this guy, but somehow, in her head, the relationship had mutated into something else – it had taken off, gone all the way, settled down, bought a people carrier and put a mortgage down on a semi not too far from Mum and Dad.
She had barely spoken to him, but she had vigilantly made her way through not only his profile, but that of his ex-girlfriend, his best friend and even of his mother, leaving no stone unturned across all four corners of the various social media (Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, LinkedIn) – she’d even changed the settings on her account so she could go on his LinkedIn page without him knowing.
She described the particularly awkward moment of accidentally adding his cousin on Facebook and how ‘her heart nearly fell out of her arse’ (although my friend and I agreed we’re pretty sure that’s not an expression). She said, “I don’t know what’s wrong with me! I have an inner-Glenn Close! Next thing I know, I’ll have come to, and be looking down in horror at the pictures of his pets I’ve just trolled with photos of me bringing a pan to a rolling boil!” (She didn’t say the last part, but I know he was thinking it. Sexist.)
Inside the screen, our minds are given full rein to privately explore the farthermost regions of our desires. We can virtually inhabit a romantic fantasy and fill it with rich details, letting our minds run free… from a glimpse of the family photo circa 2007, you could picture Christmas with the in-laws; you could fashion a future together from his likes, and plan your honeymoon from his travel photos – “You know, when I was on my gap year, I always dreamed I’d come back here with my future wife,” he says as you gaze into the stars from your hammock…
Slightly disturbing as they may be, tales of unrequited, borderline-restraining-order-worthy online obsessions seem actually quite sweet, at least by comparison to the trolling vitriol and the very real death threats that plague our virtual pages.
Somehow people seem to lose grip on reality so completely, that they might tweet a celebrity they don’t know, to tell them they would like to see them burn alive. They might blurt out death threats and click ‘send’ without thinking, or spitefully spit their sadistic fantasies into their keyboard and spew them out into cyberspace – all because of something as trifling as the fact that someone makes crap jokes on Bake Off (I personally find the mental image of Sue Perkins in the same room as the TopGear audience quite hilarious, but what ever grinds your gears).
In both cases, there is something about the Internet that means it seems to draw out the most extreme behaviour from people. People are scared of what happens online, but it’s easy to forget that the source of these thoughts isn’t spawned in the wires under the sea. The question really, I suppose, is whether we are all secretly this messed-up after all, and the Internet is merely the medium that finally bridges the outside world to our silent, secret selves. The web is a weird and scary place filled with intense emotions, but I guess, so are our heads.