Why does online stalking someone you despise feel so good? Many of us complain about annoying social media posts from people we despise, so why can’t we just unfollow them or mute them? Many of us have heard the term “hate-stalking,” and have potentially engaged in the activity ourselves. So what is it and why does it feel good even though it’s clearly bad?
Hate stalking is common. Perhaps watching a stranger’s questionable life choices makes you feel validated about your own decisions, or perhaps you wasted away the hours during lockdown by self-righteously shaking your head and feeling superior when seeing posts documenting a rule-breaking birthday party. It’s essentially a digital-era standard. In 2015, Elle aptly called hate-stalking “one of the most socially acceptable forms of insanity.”
But the question remains: Why don’t we simply unfollow, mute, or block them?
Science has an answer for us. From a neurobiological standpoint, love and hate engage the same brain pathways. This indicates that when we hate-follow somebody, we may experience a pleasurable feeling, and the expectation of that feeling may motivate us to look at the profiles of people we don’t like in the future.
Algorithms function in the same way, in that they can’t distinguish if you’re connecting with someone because you like or dislike their content. As a result, if you visit someone’s page regularly, social media platforms will presume you want to see more of their posts, which fuels our desire to keep looking at stuff from individuals we despise.
On the internet, individuals may be truly growing more obnoxious and irritating. It’s true that we’re all becoming more cognizant of our own “personal brand,” whether consciously or subconsciously. There is a macro-level movement towards the type of “influencerification” of the common consumer, and everyone will become an influencer at some point.
But if we truly think about it, we rarely get to know the people we hate-stalk in real life. We’re often just having a parasocial relationship with them, where regular exposure to their information makes us feel like we know them. Normally, parasocial links arise between celebrities and their fans but, thanks to the “influencerification” of normal people, we’re also prone to forming parasocial bonds with acquaintances we follow on social media.
In truth, the people we unintentionally despise are most likely decent or at the very least harmless. As previously stated, we’re all cultivating personal brands, and there’s always a disconnect—sometimes large, sometimes small—between someone’s obnoxious social media persona and their actual personality. If we keep this in mind, there’s really no harm in quietly following their stories. But keep in mind that comparison is truly the thief of joy.
Maybe it’s just time for a digital detox altogether.