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Can the guy across the office tell if you've been 'stalking' him on Facebook?

Aug. 31, 2012 at 3:03 PM ET

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Question: When I look at (or stalk) a friend's, ex's or stranger's Facebook page, is there any way they would know I looked at it, what I looked at, or how much time I spent on it?Anonymous (or am I?)

Answer: Facebook and "stalking" go together like Pinterest and food, Instagram and sunsets, Twitter and networky self-promotion — you can definitely have one without the other, but it just wouldn’t be quite the same.

Case in point: this Canadian graduate student's master's thesis found that 88 percent of people she surveyed who had recently gone through a breakup had "spent time looking at, analyzing or 'creeping' " their ex’s Facebook profile. And I suspect a lot of this takes place at work, on your employer's computer, Internet access, and dime.

The term "Facebook stalking" gets thrown about pretty lightly and generally refers to the practice of looking at other people's Facebook pages and not wanting them to know about it. You don't indicate in your note how often you look at these profile pages (I'm assuming you don't have malicious intentions toward these people). Let's suppose you find yourself looking at Jean from Accounting’s Facebook profile 400 times a month and start to worry she might find it a bit creepy. Well, you're in luck, because the object of your obsession basically has no way of knowing that you've been Facebook-stalking him or her.

Your stalkee will never receive a notification from Facebook that you have seen their profile, what you looked at on their profile, or how much time you spent on their profile; those Facebook apps that claim to show users who have looked at their profiles are pretty much scams. And a Facebook spokesperson I corresponded with confirms that your ex-girlfriend/boyfriend/wife/husband/colleague/judo instructor/etc. can't figure out who has looked at his or her profile by scrutinizing the order in which Facebook friends show up on their Friends list or by looking at the Friends box on their timeline (or yours).

The friends who pop up most frequently in your Friends box on your Timeline "might include friends who you interact with the most in Wall posts, comments and mutually attended events." That selection is not based on profile views, according to Facebook.

A Quora response from Facebook programmer Keith Adams also indicates that this is likely the case.

You know those results that pop up in the Facebook search bar as you type? They always seem to favor certain people, don't they? Nervous, aren't you? Well, don't be. They probably won't give away your voyeuristic behavior either.

This bookmarklet will tell you how Facebook ranks your friends for you for search purposes. For search-ranking purposes, Facebook likely takes into consideration who you search for and/or whose profile pages you view. After the bookmarklet was first released, Adams stressed that "visiting someone's profile does not affect the search results of anyone but yourself."

However, if the person you are stalking online has access to your Facebook account, in theory they could use this tool (or play around with your search bar) to get a vague idea of who you search for the most — so don't give your password out to people you are obsessed with on Facebook.

Even though your online crush doesn't know you're watching them, Facebook does. "We receive data about you whenever you interact with Facebook, such as when you look at another person's timeline, send or receive a message, search for a friend or a Page, click on, view, or otherwise interact with things, use a Facebook mobile app, purchase Facebook Credits, or make other purchases through Facebook. ...Typically, information associated with your account will be kept until your account is deleted," Facebook writes on its website.

Where is this data kept? On servers stored miles below the earth, in bulletproof vaults, guarded by angry #3b5998-blue cyborg gnomes who hop from leg to leg wielding torches and spears? Actually, Facebook has data centers around the world, and they are fancier than your house.

Of course, the FBI can also access your Facebook records, but this is probably most relevant only if you're engaging in criminal behavior (advice: don't).

I suppose it is within the realm of possibility that hackers could get ahold of Facebook, too, and do slippery things to the service — or your information. But exposing your obsession is probably not part of their plan for world domination.

What might be more serious is that there's a good chance your employer can (and does) access your website browsing history and might not be too pleased to find out you spend 40 percent of your time surfing Facebook.

So while the person you are "stalking" on Facebook has no easy way of knowing what you're up to, you might not be 100 percent safe from Mark Zuckerberg, hackers, your boss or the FBI. But then, who is?

I hope I've made you feel safe enough to continue to Facebook-stalk if that's what you want to do, but paranoid enough to spend a bit more of your time doing something more productive (and way more fun) than scrutinizing your ex-boyfriend's Facebook profile and attempting to determine which one of his Facebook friends he's in a "complicated" relationship with — the blonde girl named Ashley? Or the blonde girl named Ashlee? Don't worry, I'm sure you're better-looking than both of them.

I'm not a mental health professional (evidence: see previous sentence), nor do I think curiosity-driven Internet voyeurism necessarily requires consultation with a psychiatrist. I do think, however, that no matter how wonderfully social and useful our Internet becomes, the ease with which platforms like Facebook allow us to (sometimes unwittingly) drag our pasts with us unnaturally into the future will always carry with it an element of emotional distress that did not exist in quite the same way before the rise of the World Wide Web.

I don't know if this is the case with you, but if you can't stop looking at someone's Facebook page, you may be engaging in unhealthy behavior. What is it that you want to know about them? And why? Are you living vicariously through them? Are you too afraid to talk to them in real life? Or did something happen between you and that person in the past that causes you to look at their profile so often, even though the relationship is over?

Are you looking for evidence that they should never have broken up with you? Are you secretly hoping they're unhappy? If that's the case, chances are looking at their self-curated smiling photos on Facebook isn't going to make you happier; they're going to make you feel disappointed, the kind of disappointment that is poisonous to your spirit and can keep you from truly moving on with your life. Like Eve and her apple, sometimes, no matter how great the temptation, it's better to resist the urge to know.

Or maybe you just like to have a bit of a snoop once in a while.

(Disclosure: I've solicited and received newsroom social media advice from Facebook's Journalist Program Manager in the past).

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