Is Facebook voyeurism wrong?

02:25, Jul 03 2012
woman using iphone
THE NEW FRIENDSHIP: Facebook, like all media technologies, trains us in ways of relating.

Lucy and I knew each other as children, though we were never close. She moved to England at some point during school and we had no contact for ten years, until one day she asked for my Facebook friendship.

Since becoming Facebook friends, we have had no communication via that, or any other medium. However, Lucy is a compulsive Facebook user.

You know the type; she posts several times a day, every day - status updates, photos, quizzes, memes, likes, comments - you name it, she Facebooks it.

Consequently, I feel like I know a great deal about Lucy's life, especially about her relationship with her fiancé Mark, whom, I should add, I have never met.

I know, for instance, that they got engaged the summer after they finished high school, but that their families wanted them to have a long engagement and finish university before they got married.

I know that last Christmas her dad gave them a cat called Albert and they once had a dog named Humphrey (though I don't know what happened to him).


I know they have regular study dates at their local cafe, I know the names of his parents and three sisters.

She fills my News Feed with a barrage of posts about his wonderfulness and innumerable photos of them kissing, or holding hands or making love hearts out of their arms, so I can only conclude that they are very much in love.

So, imagine my shock when a few weeks ago I logged onto Facebook and at the top of my News Feed was the announcement: "Lucy McInnes is single."

I cried out in alarm. "What happened? You only just watched The Hunger Games together yesterday!"

Needless to say, I did what anyone would do: I went to her Facebook page and looked through the last few months of her Timeline, trying to work out what had gone wrong.

I was aware that it was absurd for me to feel so invested in a couple I knew only from Facebook. And so I began to ask questions.

Was I the only one who engaged in treating my acquaintances as my evening entertainment? Is there anything wrong with that? And who would get custody of Albert in the break-up?

When the characters in our soap operas are in fact real people, it ought to give us pause for thought.

For my part, I knew that if I was ever going to be able to enjoy what was surely going to be an exciting new phase in Lucy's love life, I needed to examine the moral grey zone that is Facebook "voyeurism".

To start with, it's worth clearing up some language issues. Facebook "stalking", as the practice is known, is a term unfortunately and unfairly laden with creepy-old-man-with-a-leer connotations. And the term "voyeurism" is similarly loaded.

Voyeurism, according to every dictionary Google has access to, means one of two things: getting sexual gratification from watching other people, or enjoying watching other people's misery or distress.

People generally don't use Facebook "voyeuristically" in either of the true senses of the word - and if you do, shame on you, I hope you get unfriended by everyone.

When we say that someone who finds their acquaintances' lives entertaining is a "voyeur", what I suspect we mean is that that they are simply someone who enjoys watching. And we watch others on Facebook because we love people's stories.

Being interested in the dramas of people around us does not make us crazy or psychopathic - it makes us human.

Aristotle said that people are "rational animals" and postmodern philosophers have rightly added that we are also both "relational animals" and "narrative animals".

We love people and we love stories; put them together and we are a very happy species. Which is why we read novels, watch movies, follow reality television programs, and it's why (or at least one of the main reasons why) we use Facebook.

In fact, a 2010 Palo Alto report found that 88 per cent of time spent on Facebook was used in what they called "voyeuristic" ways - in activities like looking through other people's Walls and checking our News Feeds.

And though evidently so many of us love doing it, there are dangers to treating our friends' lives as entertainment.

The danger lies in the fact that we'll blur the line between when we're meant to be an audience member, and when we're meant to be a friend.

Lucy is what one might call a Facebook over-sharer. She performed her break-up, as she performs everything, very publically.

Consequently, she had, and I would go so far as to say she even wanted, a Facebook audience for her relational dramas. And I was part of this audience.

But I was not an active friend who related to her on an emotional level. When she and Mark broke up, I didn't even consider offering her a cyber-shoulder to cry on. I didn't post anything consoling, I didn't get involved - and I'm OK with that.

But, if we are trained to be fascinated audience members, instead of active, empathic friends, some suggest this will affect the way we respond to the crises of people we really care about.

Social commentator Peg Streep writes about this danger, saying that "Voyeurism has the ability to desensitise, making people content to watch, instead of act.  Dramas played out in public ... turn even friends into voyeurs who, alas, are content to watch."

Facebook, like all media technologies, not only reveals things about our humanity - such as our insatiable love for stories and Instagram - but it also trains us in ways of relating.

It would be a sad thing if we became so adept at following the soap operas of our acquaintances' lives that our first instinct upon hearing about a friend's troubles was curiosity, rather than empathy.

As for the Lucy and Mark situation, the next time they post a life-drama, I will grab the popcorn, curl up and enjoy it - we are narrative animals, this is what we do.

But given the danger that Facebook could turn us into passive audiences for everyone, even the people who matter to us, as I enjoy Lucy and Mark's Facebook saga I should take steps to remind myself that I'm a relational animal too. There are times to log off and be a good friend.

And you will be happy to know that last week Lucy and Mark changed their relationship statuses to It's Complicated. The dramas continue.

Are you a Facebook voyeur?

-Daily Life