“Backstalking” the Past

Before the advent of social media, teenagers could share personal information with their friends and trust that their conversations wouldn’t be recorded for posterity. Today’s teens share everything from selfies to romantic relationships online, but now this information is being recorded and preserved indefinitely.  Adults often worry about teens oversharing, but how do teens regard their former online behavior as they themselves become adults? 

Sarita Schoenebeck

A new study from the University of Michigan School of Information, drawing on interview data from 28 participants aged 18-22, finds that young adults value the memories that are stored on Facebook and often look back on those memories with nostalgia.

While they may be embarrassed by some of their early Timeline content, in general they do not delete it, said Sarita Schoenebeck, assistant professor in the School of Information and the lead author of the study. “Most of those we interviewed considered their adolescent Facebook posts as valuable archives and use Facebook as a way to reminisce about the past with close friends. One interview participant called Facebook ‘a modern-day time capsule.’”

The researchers found that young adults often engage in a popular game in which they find potentially embarrassing old content on their friends’ Facebook pages—such as an awkward photo from middle school—and “like” or comment on it to bring it to the top of the person’s news feed. This is done playfully with their close friends, and even if it’s embarrassing, it’s considered socially acceptable. 

The participants refer to this practice of looking back at someone’s Facebook history as “Facebook stalking,” “backstalking” or “creeping.” The researchers found that when the study subjects “backstalked” someone they didn’t know well – to learn about a new acquaintance or investigate a potential romantic interest, for example – they tended to do this privately. In fact, some even avoided doing this on their mobile phones so that they didn’t accidentally “like” something and reveal themselves. 

Researchers also found that teens’ Facebook behaviors changed dramatically from their adolescence to young adulthood. The participants reported that they used to do lots of quizzes and games, share hundreds of photos at a time, post vague references to music lyrics and acquire as many friends as possible. 

As young adults, however, they tend to be more careful about what they post online. They share only the best photo of themselves, and they expect to receive likes and comments on that photo. They value the quality of their Facebook friendships over quantity. 

Many social media applications, such as Timehop and On This Day, make it easy for users to look back on the growing trove of digital data people generate online. 

“It is important for technology companies to help people maintain control over their current and past online identities,” Schoenebeck said, “especially for teenagers, whose identities are still forming while they are sharing extensively online.”

The research was supported by the National Science Foundation (#1318143) and by the University of Michigan MCubed program. 

The paper, “Playful Backstalking and Serious Impression Management: How Young Adults Reflect on Their Past Identities on Facebook,” will be presented at the Association for Computer Machinery’s Computer-Supported Collaborative Work conference in San Francisco in March. The authors are Sarita Schoenebeck, Nicole B. Ellison, Lindsay Blackwell, Joseph B. Bayer (all of the University of Michigan) and Emily B. Falk (University of Pennsylvania).

The full text of the paper is available here.

Posted February 19, 2016