After Colleen* and her boyfriend broke up, she was unable to resist looking up his new love on Friendster.com, the popular Web site that connects people through a network of friends. There, Colleen found countless descriptions of his current girlfriend as “the most amazing, interesting, beautiful person he’s ever met.”
“It was like watching a car crash. I couldn’t stop reading the testimonials he posted and it horrified me,” says the 28-year-old office manager.
The broken-hearted have turned the tables on online dating. Instead of perusing profiles on sites like Friendster, MySpace and LiveJournal for a compatible mate, these folks are trolling through already failed matches.
Members create a profile, post photos, maintain blogs, and connect through a network of friends by inviting people to join or by finding them on the site.
“There’s this unlimited secret access, so you can spy on people but they don’t have to know,” admits Jennifer*, a 23-year-old marketing coordinator. “It sounds really stalker-y [sic], but yes, I’m guilty.”
“It’s like this weird obsession,” says Colleen. “It’s like you want to feel like you’re still part of their life in some way.” Now that Colleen and her ex have ceased all other contact, Friendster is “the only line left between us. It’s the only reminder besides my memories.”
Beyond this bittersweet connection, most e-stalkers simply want to keep tabs on their ex’s relationship status.
Samantha*, a sharply-dressed 29-year-old writer, confesses that she mostly checks her ex’s profile to “see if he has changed it to reflect being in a relationship.”
Colleen, who regularly looks at the pages of several exes, says, “Knowing that they’re still single makes me feel so much better about myself, especially when I’m still single. I don’t feel as pathetic.”
But when that little box changes to “in a relationship,” comparing yourself to the new girl is often just a click away.
Jennifer felt compelled to check on her ex’s new girlfriend’s MySpace page daily.
“This is so embarrassing and stupid, but I used to take this dorky pride in the fact that I had hundreds more friends than she did, but then she eventually surpassed my friend count. So then I’d be like, well, at least my testimonials are better,” says Jennifer.
When Colleen read through her ex-boyfriend’s girlfriend’s profile, she admits she “was doing the whole comparison thing.” Says Colleen, “She’s tall and really pretty and an art student and she seems to have her act together. And I was just like ‘awesome.’ Why am I reading this? Do I really need to know what bands she likes?”
While most e-stalkers keep their investigating secret, some people can’t resist their desire to exact a more public revenge. Mills alumna Lisa discovered just how accessible her LiveJournal entries really were when her boyfriend’s ex-wife posted a scathing message on her site and insulted her “in front of a LiveJournal audience.”
“I felt a weird sense of violation and a shocking realization that my words were out there for anyone to see. I had assumed that my journal was boring, and the only ones who would be interested would be my friends,” says Lisa.
However, most social networking sites allow members to determine the availability of their profile. Michelle Wohl, Friendster’s marketing director, explains, “For example, if I am self conscious about my ex monitoring my profile and blog, I might choose to only allow my first degree friends to see my profile and contact me. Or, if I am an open person, I might decide to let my second degree friends (friends of friends) or third degree friends, or anyone on Friendster to view my profile.”
Although extreme, the ex-wife’s reaction is a prime example of e-stalking’s emotional toll. Following your ex online may feel innocent at first, but Jennifer says, “I think it’s masochistic because once you do it, it makes you feel really horrible and angry and it brings up all of the pain and pissed off feelings you try not to think about. It’s this horrible curiosity. You know that you shouldn’t do it just for your own sanity but you still do.”
Colleen hit rock bottom before she stopped looking at her most significant ex’s page. “I made myself so completely miserable, and it was really serving no purpose. There’s only so long that you can do something like that to yourself. It’s just like drinking or whatever, it reaches a certain point that you’re like ‘What are you doing? It’s enough!’ And I reached that,” she says. “But I still feel compelled. I’m compelled right now just to click on it.”
With this new ability to stay connected online well past any real world connection, the breakup line of the 21st century may have been coined by Lisa, who let a fellow go with, “We can always be Friendsters.”
*Names changed to protect privacy.