Twitterstalking
by ZOSIA BIELSKI, Globe and Mail
April 2, 2009

The social networking site may be the hottest new tool to keep track of your lover ? or an ex ? but compulsive surveillance can backfire

A woman watches with dread as her ex-boyfriend tweets about the shapely rear end of his new conquest as they dine at what was once her favourite restaurant. Weeks later, the dread is replaced with glee as she watches the couple bicker, tweet by tweet.

Whether it's used for checking in on a current partner or trolling an ex's tweets in hopes that his life may be more miserable than yours, Twitter is poised to become the best eavesdropping tool since Facebook ? and one experts say can denigrate trust in romantic relationships.

?Information's power, but information is also a security blanket, a total lack of confidence in ourselves and the people we know,? Hal Niedzviecki said.

The Toronto-based social commentator is examining how social networking tools such as Twitter are changing values in his eighth book, The Peep Diaries: How We're Learning to Love Watching Ourselves and Our Neighbors, which will be published in May.

?It used to be you'd say, ?Okay, I trust you. You go out into your world and you do your thing and I'll see you when I see you,'? said Mr. Niedzviecki, pointing out that Twitter and other social networking tools make people crave more information about those they are ? or used to be ? close with, not less.

A recent survey of 1,724 Britons by Yasni.co.uk, a search engine for tracking down people, found that 54 per cent of respondents had used networks such as Twitter to peer in on an ex's life. For some of the respondents, harvesting intelligence became addictive, with one-quarter saying they regularly ?check up on? exes.

?It's not just a one-off, they're regularly monitoring,? said Andy Barr, Yasni's marketing manager.

According to the survey, the spy syndrome affects women more than men: 46 per cent of men said they'd scoped out an ex, compared with 62 per cent of women. While 57 per cent of the female respondents said their curiosity was good-natured, 21 per cent admitted the surveillance was a jealous tick. Meanwhile, 9 per cent of all respondents were bold about their snooping, saying they did it because they knew they could not be caught.

Twitter allows non-users to track others' profiles by simply Googling them. The service does let users block certain followers or lock their profiles so people have to request to follow them, but few are doing this as it ?is completely contrary to the point of Twitter,? Mr. Niedzviecki said.

Twitter is the latest ?trail of digital crumbs,? said Don Tapscott, adjunct professor of management at the University of Toronto.

He's also the author of Grown Up Digital.

The permanence of information posted online means others can catalogue things the poster has long forgotten about, he says.

?These crumbs are a sort of mirror image of each of us, a virtual you. The virtual you may know more than you do about many things, because you can't remember where you were five months ago ? or what you said two years ago.?

Prof. Tapscott said Twitter and other social networking sites speak to the Soviet Union axiom issued by Ronald Reagan: ?Trust but verify.?

?The flip side of that,? Prof. Tapscott said, ?is that if I'm checking up on you all the time then that's going to undermine trust too.?

Nancy Baym, a professor of communication studies at the University of Kansas, says Twitter can highlight partners' contradictory desires.

?Relationship scholars talk about this tension between wanting to be totally interdependent and know everything about the other person and have them know everything about you, but also wanting to have lots of freedom to do what you want without anybody telling you what to do or where to be,? said Prof. Baym, who is researching relationships forged on social networking sites.

Still, Twitter affords relative privacy compared with the next generation of surveillance already under way: video and GPS ?social tracking? of loved ones.

Mr. Niedzviecki points to daycares installing webcams and his own use of a device developed by a Calgary company called the GPS Snitch. With his wife's consent, Mr. Niedzviecki stuck it in her purse for an experiment. As a ?blip? on his computer, Mr. Niedzviecki's wife could be monitored, longitudinally and latitudinally at least.

?I did this for about a week and what I realized was I was starting to freak out. The freak out would occur when I didn't really know where she was or what she was doing. I would watch her path and then she would stop. ? And then I'd try to call her on her cellphone and she wouldn't answer, and I literally couldn't do anything until she started to move again.?

He believes his ?freak out? was metaphorical for what Twitter and other sites can do to people.

?The more information we have, the more information we want to have and the more information we think we're entitled to. This is a big shift in our values, a shift that has already been happening, but is vastly accelerated by all this stuff,? Mr. Niedzviecki says.

And Twitterers indignant about others tuning in to their lives have little right to be, he says: ?It can't really be spying if you're putting it out there into this public forum for a way to follow you.?