See You Later Tom and Thanks for Everything
Drawing parallels between social media and my “peeping Tom”
A few weeks ago, I had the displeasure of being stalked and watched via my bedroom window by some voyeuristic street creep. Late in evening — usually around 1 or 2 in the morning — a “peeping Tom” would hang around the back of my apartment and knock on my door, possibly in an attempt to lure me outside, but most likely to get me moving around in my underwear. Most of the time, I always thought it was someone playing a prank on me, or a neighbor in need of some help. But every time I went to the door to see who was knocking, no one would be there. Now keep in mind, I was living alone at the time, and unbeknownst to me — as I continued to change in front of my window and go about my nightly routine — a man was staring at me all the while. It was only during one night, after several knocks at my back door, that I saw his face peering through a crack in my curtain. After chalking up his latest visit as a mistaken Postmates courier, I returned to my room and got into bed. As I laid my head on the pillow, eyes stared back at me and for a moment I was frozen. There wasn’t any shock on his face, no remorse. Only the look of a man who had been waiting for me to see him, and had finally gotten his reward.
Shrieking, I ran out of my room to hide in the kitchen and call the police. They arrived shortly after and confirmed what I knew to already be true: that it was too late, and no one was behind my apartment or at my window. After asking me questions about the man’s face and clothes, the police left me with a report number, in the event that my peeping Tom returned and I needed to call them again. Although I knew the man probably wouldn’t come back after the police had patrolled the apartment, I didn’t feel comfortable sleeping there alone. “Tom”, as I’ve not so affectionately been calling him, had robbed me of that. Shortly after the police left, I called my parents and talked to them about the incident. We all agreed that it was time for me to move out of my apartment.
A few years ago, I read a book called “The Circle” by Dave Eggers — a story about a young woman who goes to work for a pseudo Google called (you guessed it) “The Circle”. During her time there, she witnesses the rise of technologies reminiscent of apps like Periscope, YouTube, and Twitter. At the start, her role on the customer support team seems pretty typical. She answers questions and solves minor technical problems, using the “Circle” platform much in the same way that most Silicon Valley elite use Twitter to connect with users IRL. Her job performance rides on the number of “smiles” (i.e. “likes”) she can give out in forums, and number of followers she maintains. But as the company rolls out new features, this is taken to an absurd extreme. The woman is expected to not only be active on “The Circle” social network, but also broadcast her life nearly 24/7, similar to the way we watch YouTube vloggers or Snapchat stories. Eventually, this proves too much for her, and in an attempt to regain some privacy — she leaves town, and goes off the grid. I won’t spoil the ending, but given how avid Reddit users can be when tasked with a manhunt, I’m willing to bet you can guess what happened.
At the time that I read this, the book felt eerily prophetic, and in some ways is. Transparency has become ubiquitous in the sense that apps like Snapchat, Instagram, Facebook — you name it — encourage people to post updates about their lives all the time. Technology has given us the tools to undermine our own privacy, handing it over to strangers on the internet — and we do it willingly. But what happens when we remind people of that boundary? When we go dark and our lives become impenetrable to the all seeing social media eye? Kalel, a favorite YouTuber of mine, recently took a break from vlogging in order to recover from a nose job and I’ve been so frustrated by it. Her hiatus is a barrier that I cannot breach, but boy do I want to. Part of my morning routine involves checking Twitter to see if a new video has been uploaded — not only so that I can watch her run errands and play with her cats, but so I can see her new nose. I want to know what it looks like, and when I think about it, it’s gross how much it matters to me.
I’ve been going back to my apartment occasionally (but only during the daytime) to gather any things that I missed during my initial move, and to clean up all of my shit — because boy, I’m messy. During my last visit, I ran into my next door neighbor who informed me that another girl living in an adjacent apartment had called the police the other night, supposedly for the same reasons I had only a few weeks ago. Although she couldn’t be sure it was the same guy, she did tell me that there had been a man pacing up and down the complex who happened to match the vague description in my report. When she noticed him passing by her window several times, she went outside to get a better look — but before she could, the man ducked behind the back of the building and disappeared into the night. Shortly after, the police arrived with dogs and patrolled the area for several hours.
“I’d bet you a million bucks it’s the same guy”, I said. My neighbor agreed, and mentioned that she and her girlfriend would be moving soon too. They didn’t feel safe there anymore either. But her story did make me wonder: did “Tom” return to my apartment after I’d left?
Sometimes, I like to think about him wandering the complex at night, leaves crunching underneath the weight of his footsteps as he walks to my window. The light isn’t on, nor the glow of my TV screen, and that confuses him. But he looks into my room anyway. He notices the curtains are gone, and face pressed to glass he peers into the darkness. But he can’t see anything, so perhaps he uses his phone to shine a light into the room, and instead of a sleeping girl he finds…nothing. Just some empty boxes, and a few abandoned socks. What does he feel in this moment? Was he frustrated when he discovered that I was no longer there, that he no longer had access to my private life? When I compare these thoughts to my own behavior on the internet, suddenly it seems like “Tom” and I aren’t so different.
Well, obviously we are — I mean, there’s a screen between me and the rest of you all, and it’s not like I watch people through their bedroom windows at night. But even so, it seems that voyeurism comes in all shapes in sizes.
Food for thought.