Who's a creepier stalker?

Average citizens have random and often inappropriate information about their colleagues.

emilyleatherman88 (photo credit: AP)
(photo credit: AP)
The arrest last week of Emily Leatherman, the 33-year-old woman who allegedly has been stalking actor John Cusack (and has also been known to hang out in front of Tom Cruise's house) was creepy enough, but also oddly quaint. I don't want to make light of stalking. It's a serious crime that can lead to violent, even lethal consequences. And Leatherman, who has been accused of forwarding her mail to Cusack's house as well as throwing a bag containing love letters, rocks and screwdrivers over his fence, presumably didn't choose her methods in order to seem like an old-fashioned girl. But in the nearly 20 years since California made the physical act illegal, the concept of stalking has become so ubiquitous that it takes someone like Leatherman to remind us what the term actually means. Whereas old-school stalking requires at least furtive peeping from behind bushes and at most the antics of Glenn Close in Fatal Attraction, the trendy new incarnation is all about honoring personal space. Whereas traditional stalking is about getting attention, about declaring yourself, it's now about remaining invisible. The idea is to learn as much about a person as possible without asking him any direct questions or, in some cases, even meeting him face to face. The idea is to know everything about that person without giving him any sign. I am, of course, talking about the kind of stalking that involves not restraining orders but Internet search engines. It is often referred to as cyber-stalking, Web-stalking or Google-stalking. It usually means just typing someone's name in a search box and uncovering such juicy bits as his finish time in a 10K charity run or an article about strategic brand management that he wrote for a company newsletter in 2005. As benign - and banal - as these actions generally are, the word "stalking" still seems to apply. That's because "research" or, more accurately, "procrastinating at work" don't do justice to our compulsion to feed our curiosity, indulge in mischief and pretend to be some geeky version of Magnum P.I. Because Web-stalking, unlike old-fashioned stalking, requires neither elaborate subterfuge nor cab fare (it was Leatherman's refusal to pay for her taxi ride to Cusack's house in Malibu that tipped off authorities last week), we're free to dig up what we can on anyone whose name springs to mind while we're drinking VitaminWater and staring at the cubicle wall. This is how we've come to live in a world where average citizens have random and often inappropriate information about their colleagues, classmates, yoga teachers, gastroenterologists, coffee baristas and, above all, present, future and (most commonly) past romantic partners. What's more, any shame once associated with this practice has all but evaporated. Early generations of cyber-stalkers took pains to hide the breadth of their dubiously garnered knowledge - one did not, for instance, show up on a blind date and say, "Great article about strategic brand management in that company newsletter!" Now it appears to be perfectly acceptable to let a new acquaintance know that you've run dozens of searches on his name plus looked him up on Facebook and MySpace. Keeping tabs could be viewed as the sincerest form of flattery. OF COURSE, as long as this sleuthing doesn't involve issuing threats, doing harm or breaking into houses to sleep in your stalkee's bed, it's a bit grandiose to call it stalking. Still, there's fixation to consider. We can't help ourselves. When political columnist Katha Pollitt wrote an essay in the New Yorker about Web-stalking - she used the word - her ex-boyfriend, some readers chided her for trivializing or even participating in an act of harassment. But Pollitt wasn't harassing her former mate, merely Googling him. The territory she was exploring was not his personal space but the vast public expanse of the Internet, a realm packed with clues - some revealing, most inane - about almost everyone's existence. (As Pollitt pointed out in several interviews, if she'd framed the essay around a mundane concept like "Googling my ex-boyfriend," no one would have given it a second thought.) I wonder if our insistence on applying violent terminology to an activity that essentially amounts to a very nerdy, needy form of gossip suggests that we might be a bit more embarrassed about our Internet activities than we'd care to admit. After all, Googling John Cusack turns up close to three million search results. We know that reading every one of them is less potentially dangerous than loitering outside someone's gate, but who's more obsessed - the person who spends countless hours wading through Web entries or the person who tosses a bag of letters, rocks and screwdrivers over the fence and calls it a day? The writer is an essayist and novelist in Los Angeles.