Someone recently asked me if I’d ever used a fake “burner” account to stalk someone on Instagram. No. Because I’m not an amateur. I’ve been stalking people on the internet for more than 15 years and Instagram is the last place I’m looking to find something juicy. That’s where people post what they want the world to see. I’m more interested in what they don’t.
If we are acquainted socially, professionally or romantically, the chances are I’ve already been digging and that whenever we have an actual conversation, I’m pretending not to already know about 80 per cent of what you tell me about yourself.
If you think your private life is private, you’re wrong. Here is a list of a things I have discovered about people I have met fewer than five times (or in some cases, not at all): childhood address and number of people living there at the time of the 1997 general election, whether they were privately or state-educated, the number of their parents’ established and dissolved businesses as listed on Companies House (suspiciously high), their profile on an obscure talent agency database (last walk-on part in The Bill in 2008), the name of the dog who died in 2016 (still much-missed if the remembrance posts are anything to go by) and how much money their mum got in the divorce.
I’ve also uncovered how many votes their uncle got while running for the Liberal Democrats in a 2017 by-election, which of their sisters won in a tennis match in 2003 (captured in a home movie uploaded to their father’s YouTube channel), degree of relation to Camilla Parker-Bowles, the prize they were given for coming first in a 2006 school science competition (£50 and a handshake from Esther Rantzen), and their secret life as a moderator of a now-defunct Miley Cyrus fan forum.
I used to be proud of this. I’d revel in my power to unearth intimate details about people’s lives – I made it a challenge. A friend fancied a man she met in her salsa class and the only information I had to go on was the name “Mike” and the place “Ibiza” – where they both lived. I found him within 45 minutes and was able to calculate how long it’d been since his last relationship. My friend and Mike subsequently dated for four years.
Another friend had a date lined up and we put it to the group chat: How fast can we find a 33-year-old graphic designer called Tom in east London? Well, very, actually, given this describes a quarter of the population of Hackney, you might as well just approach bearded men in the street. But we tracked down this particular Tom in record time. I sometimes marvel at what I would be able to uncover with more time and better resources than an unhinged imagination and incognito browsing.
About six months ago, I became convinced that someone must be under witness protection, so scarce was the information about them online. I started out just wanting to know their age – something I can usually deduce from LinkedIn, a friend’s birthday post on Facebook from the late Noughties, or digitised birth records. Nada.
The more I was denied, the more suspicious I grew: it tipped from “nosiness” into “private investigation”. I needed these details I considered essential to understanding who this person was: how many siblings they have, their educational background, the origin of their surname. All of this was a dead end. I had failed. Their life went on undisturbed; I was losing sleep. The unresolved mystery was eating away at me.
There were other warning signs that my sleuthing was getting out of hand – after a few bad dating experiences in my twenties, it threatened to progress to straight-up stalking. Why, it started to dawn on me, did I really need to know? I was convinced to quit.
And really, have these background checks ever given me anything of real value? As well as filling my mind with extraneous nonsense they have probably done the opposite and led me to make assumptions about people based on class, geography and age that are either very wrong or very unfair, and that I would hope never to make if I met someone in real life.
When you know too much, you are robbed of your curiosity in conversation, you catch yourself out by revealing something you weren’t told, and you feel grubby after prying too long, or coming across something you wish you could forget.
More times than I could count, what started as an innocuous Google search has led me across a JustGiving page or old newspaper article revealing the kind of vulnerable information that only one’s closest friends would confide. Even if it’s out there, even if I will not use it for nefarious means, why should I know about someone’s grief, family illness, heartbreak, or criminal relatives? Why should I know about the temperaments of their children? Why should I know the exact date they moved cities and what the weather was like that day based on their Strava running route?
Everyone has left digital footprints. That doesn’t mean we should follow them.