Friday, August 15, 2008


A woman at work was involved in a "Googling" incident recently (details below) and asked me for my "blogger's eye view" on the subject. Oddly enough, I think by having virtually every detail of my life on display for anyone to see (anyone wanna check out my complete set of dental X-rays?), it actually puts me in a worse position to evaluate these situations than someone who lives a more private existence. So I turn to you for advice.

It seems she invited an acquaintance (a guy) of hers to be her "plus one" to a party she was going to -- and she forwarded the invite with the host's name on it to this not-quite-friend of hers. Once at the party, she noticed her plus one was chatting up the party host, only rather than simple small talk he was bringing up a bunch of obscure (if fairly inconsequential) things about the host, in what she said was sort of a "gotcha" tone. ("You used to drive a taxi, didn't you?!!!") The whole thing struck my coworker as odd, but it was only upon reflection did she realize her guest must have Googled the party host and come across various bits of information. She then found herself getting angry at her acquaintance for "checking up" on her friend ("he knew more about him than I did!"), and wanted to know if I knew what the correct "protocol" was on this -- "this" being our expectation of online privacy, I suppose. I told her that if someone is at all a "public" person, then it's all fair game. And it's certainly a generational thing. What kid today doesn't have his/her entire life on display on the Internet, which has caused many a sleepless night for potential employers and college recruiters out there. Beyond that, I really didn't know what to tell her, especially having not witnessed it. She said the party host didn't seem offended by anything that was "brought up," but she felt guilty having brought this person who had obviously done a background check on her "real" friend and couldn't help but think , what if my friend (the host) doesn't want to talk about these old things about himself? She also asked me if she should talk to her acquaintance about how she's feeling. I think every situation is different -- and this is such a new and ever-changing topic -- so there's no blanket answer. Would love to hear what you guys think.

Randy Cohen has weighed in on the subject a number of times (proving my coworker is far from alone in struggling with this subject) in his Times Ethicist column. I found this recent passage particularly relevant: The Internet is transforming the idea of privacy. The formerly clear distinction between public and private information is no longer either/or but more or less. By calling such an act ''checking up'' on someone, you make typing someone's name into a search engine sound devious and sinister. But that is less a consequence of its malevolence than of its novelty. Acceptable behavior is ratified by custom, and that takes time. As more and more people routinely Google their blind dates, nobody will feel uneasy doing so. This cultural adaptation is not arbitrary, but a communal determination that an action is harmless. So it might be better to think of this not as snooping but as curiosity. If someone set you up on a blind date with a poet, he'd most likely not feel offended but flattered that you were sufficiently interested in him to read his work. But this means the time to Google is not after your blind date but before. And it never hurts to search your beau's name along with the words "ax murderer."


Marc Lallanilla said...

Intent seems to be the point here. You want to find out more about someone because you're interested in their work, fine.

If, however, you sniff around in a stranger's life just to have "gotcha" dirt on him, then you're just a stray dog digging through garbage. "You used to drive a cab" is a weird factoid to bring to a party. What reaction was he expecting -- shock? Embarrassment? Anger? This dork needs to get an life of his own so he won't find the life of a former cabbie so riveting.

Vince Graves said...

Did your friend know that her +1 had horrible manners before she invited him along? Just because the information is available doesn't mean that someone needs to use it, especially in a "gotcha" type way.

Anonymous said...

Hmmm, this plus one guest sounds like a loser.

It's one thing to do a background check on a blind date, but in this situation, really, other than trying to show off to the host - at the risk of the host's embarrassment, what else could his actions have achieved?

Indeed, it would be interesting to hear this guy's rationale.

Since she now knows that this acquaintance doesn't share the same kind of discretion that she has, I think she has 2 options:

a. If she feels it's worth it, she can gently tell this acquaintance that such indiscretions, however well intentioned, may be potentially embarrassing (for both parties I might add).

b. She can treat this as a valuable lesson learned and only take friends she knows well as guests going forward.

Great blog by the way! :)

Steve Reed said...

There's nothing wrong with Googling someone, but in a casual situation like the one you describe, it seems tacky to CONFRONT the person you've Googled with what you've discovered. That's my two cents.

Steve said...

There's no crime in checking up on people online, this just sounds like a case of poor manors. This guy obviously doesn't know how to conduct himself in a social arena and thought it would be clever to bring up potentially embarrassing facts about the host. When in fact he should have been grateful to have even been invited, seeing as how his dance card is so empty he has time to research people he doesn't even know.

Chalk this one up to your friend not picking the right plus one for the occasion. I'd confront him and let him know that he's tacky as all get out and that he probably won't be invited anywhere else any time soon.

Van said...

How rude to smack the host in the face like that.

I google any and everyone, but that doesn't mean I have to let them know it.

Anonymous said...

I might do the research just as a way help offset my shyness at being brought to a party of strangers and give me an idea of what to talk about, but I certainly wouldn't try to play mind games. As ml said, "intent" matters.

Anonymous said...

Reason why I refuse to have a "face"book or any "my"space.

My life is private - so I make sure to keep it that way.