If you’ve been online in the last few weeks there’s a good chance you’ve seen a handful of people live-tweeting the drama series You. The ten-part thriller (which aired on Lifetime last year and now has global audiences rapt via Netflix) tells its story from the perspective of Joe, its stalker-villain. Joe’s voiceover narration firmly places the viewer in his shoes as he meets and falls for writer Beck, and inserts himself into her life — a storytelling device which means that even as he commits increasingly grave crimes, we are forced to identify with Joe, and even root for him to not get caught.
You is, on the surface, just an entertaining romp, with characters who fall largely into archetypes and a plot which veers into pulp territory as Joe’s scheming escalates. But there’s just enough meta commentary woven into the story that it works as a master-class in how not to conduct relationships — and this extends to the co-dependent, borderline toxic friendships shared by its female characters. Despite that, I was taken aback by how relatable I found Joe — not as a character per se, but in his methods. I realized that I was just as guilty of doing the same things in my own love life (stopping just short of any capital offenses, naturally).
While Joe’s obsession with Beck is sparked by a brief, casual conversation, he stokes that flame by immediately finding out everything he can about her through social media. When dating in the past, I would do exactly the same thing, poring over a person’s profiles until I thought I knew everything about them. I also shared Joe’s tendency to idolize the object of my affection, building them up in my mind to such an extent that I was sure to be disappointed — not helped by the fact that I was already looking at a curated, perfected version of them online.
Turns out it’s not just me that has a few things in common with Joe. The ubiquity of technology makes it far too easy and tempting to check up on a person before the first date. According to research by JPD, 88 percent of us look up a person on Facebook before agreeing to a date, with 63 percent looking all the way back through their social feeds.
Patrick, 33, dates men, and used to work in debt recovery, which he says has given him a knack for finding people online. “The Tinder app lists mutual friends, and a surprising number of people don’t lock down their Facebook and Instagram, so it can be easy to find people that way even just off their first name,” he says. “Facebook also allows you to find people by contact number, so if you’ve exchanged numbers prior to meeting that’s another avenue, or you can use a number to find them on Snapchat and get a surname. Then there’s Google; if you’ve chatted about work, searching their name, company and town could bring up a LinkedIn.” He pauses for a moment, then adds: “This makes me sound extremely creepy, doesn’t it!”
So why does he do it? “First of all, I’m hella nosy,” he says. “Also, first dates can be daunting, so I suppose there’s an extra element of security if you have a bit more information about the other party. If you can find some common points of interest, it does give you ideas of how to keep up the conversation if you ever find it dropping off… At the same time, I do find it fascinating how little some people care about security with their online presence,” he says. “It’s a little terrifying how easy it can be sometimes to track people down!”
Anneli, 28, has found that her unusual first name makes her easily searchable online; perhaps too much so. “I’m a blogger and write about mental health awareness, and I’ve had so many people look me up and then ask really invasive questions about my mental health or say inappropriate things,” she says. “One guy googled me, saw that my mum had died, and bought me a bracelet with her date of death on it. I keep my profiles public so people can find my work, but now I get terrified at the thought of even a cursory Facebook search. It’s put me off online dating so much.”
Hannah, 23, also likes to do her homework before she meets someone. When I speak to her, she is getting ready for her first date with a woman she met on Tinder. “She’s a journalist, so she was fairly easy to find, but I did a deep dive on her Twitter — the best platform for researching, in my opinion,” she says. “I think I scrolled back to whenever Love Island started last year, then I had to tell myself to stop.”
For Hannah, her social media stalking isn’t necessarily about determining that somebody is who they say they are, but to find potential material for conversation. “Growing up online, I’ve learned how to judge if someone is a catfish or not fairly easily,” she says. “I met this girl online, I’m meeting her tonight for the first time, and we’re both doing Dry January, so my searching was more inspired by the panic that we might struggle to make conversation for two hours without something fruity to help the chat flow.”
When it comes to the heterosexual dating paradigm, JPD’s research indicates that men and women have very different reasons for stalking a potential date online. While men are predominantly browsing a woman’s pictures, videos, and interests, safety is top of mind for women, who tend to look at a man’s work history and signs of a criminal record. And it makes sense that somebody who has previously been subjected to harassment or abuse might want to take extra precautions when meeting somebody new.
So what differentiates our behavior from that of You’s obsessive protagonist? Well, our motives all seem far less nefarious, and for the most part, we’re fairly open about our stalking. According to the same JPD study, 63 percent of us wouldn’t be embarrassed if their dates knew they had done their due diligence online. That said, once you’re past the first date there is a whole new landscape to navigate: when to actually connect online? While many of us peruse the profiles of potential suitors in private, research by Match.com indicates that 41 percent of people wait until they have been out on a few dates before officially friending or following them. On the other hand, for the more insecure among us (myself included), a follow on Instagram after a first date is a nice indicator that the date went well and they’re interested.
“Instead of focusing on social media, focus on the connection you have,” dating strategist Natalia Juarez tells Refinery29. “How someone treats you, how excited they are to see you, and how responsive they are says so much more than an add.”
Ultimately, what we need (and what stalker Joe lacks) is trust. Once we’ve confirmed that our new flame is who they seem to be, we need to trust that they’ll be honest going forward. It’s also always worth remembering that they are probably just as nervous as we are… and they’ve almost definitely conducted their own private investigation.
So am I a stalker? Probably not — this is just how modern dating works. But if I am, I guess we all are.
Photo via Netflix.