What might seem like harmless Facebook surfing might cross the line into stalking. Jayashree Arunachalam digs deeper

Some boots are made for stalking. You log on to Facebook and minutes later, you're scrolling down your Recently Updated news feed: clicking on links, photos, new friends added, guest lists of events you're invited to, groups, random friends of friends. Before you know it, you're glancing through the honeymoon photos of someone you barely even know, and it's hard to know when to stop. “I often meet people at parties, and it's like I feel a little light bulb go off in my head,” confesses St. Ann's student Tina Joseph. “I'll think — hey! I know that person from Facebook!”

The question of privacy

The question is, when does this transition from harmless to disturbing? An ongoing survey by a UK charity states that nearly two million men and women in the UK alone report having being cyberstalked in some form or the other. Most people don't find this very difficult to believe. “The other day, a colleague I barely know came up to me at work and casually asked me how I'd enjoyed a wedding I'd gone for last weekend,” says 25-year-old HR professional Mihika Kamath. “I was trying to wrap my head around how he'd known, especially since we aren't friends on Facebook. Then I realised he'd been able to access my tagged photos anyway. It was a bit unsettling.”

Fiddling with privacy settings may prevent scenarios like that, but Facebook is making it easier to keep track of friends. The Facebook Stalker button, being tested out amongst a group of users, allows you to subscribe to particular users and receive updates on all their activities. “Hopefully this is an opt-in application that isn't forced on you, and which doesn't require you to comb through your privacy settings to disable,” says Mihika. “Information uploaded on Facebook isn't too private anyway, but this does border on creepy.”

Indian users are relatively boxed in from the drama happening overseas, like the Facebook Places feature which lists which of your friends are currently in your neighbourhood or “nearby” and which ones are “elsewhere”. And it isn't only bored friends or admirers who scrutinise what you're up to. An educational survey supported by the Washington Post tells you that out of 500 top colleges surveyed, 10 per cent of admissions officers admit to using social networking sites to evaluate their applicants. “It's unfair because personal lives shouldn't influence these decisions,” says 20-year-old Malini Reddy, looking to go abroad next year to study. “But maybe I can see their point. Too many drunk and inappropriate photos might just cost someone an admission. It's a scary thought.”

The flipside is simple, of course. “I'm not stalking, I'm just bored and interested,” says Emory University Ph.D. student Gayatri Sekar. Management student Prashanth V. reluctantly agrees. “I often find myself giving in to curiosity and looking through the profiles of a former colleague or crush, and I must say it can get quite addictive after a while. Who doesn't want to know what someone from the past is up to?”

It might be just clicking on photo or two or six, but to some people, it's just that: completely harmless. Twenty three-year-old lawyer Bharat Unnithan sums it up. “Facebook is a sign of the voyeuristic times we live in,” he says. All you need to know is where to draw the line. Someone recently asked the following on a How To forum online: how can I be sure that other people don't know that I'm stalking them online? The reply was simple. Stop stalking them.