Emily Yoffe: “Oh Google, TMI!”
Farhad Manjoo: I’m Slate’s technology columnist, Farhad Manjoo.
Emily: I’m Emily Yoffee, Slate’s Dear Prudence advice columnist, and this is Manners for the Digital Age.
Farhad: Today’s question is from a listener who wonders if she should tell a colleague that a quick search on the Internet yields some very personal information about them. The listener writes, “Dear Emily and Farhad, a couple times in the last year I’ve found out things about people that I never really wanted to know. In both cases, I Googled someone’s name to find their phone number, and instead discovered very revealing and sad things. My question for you is when is it appropriate to reveal that you know this stuff? I’m clearly not going to mention to my real estate agent that I saw on the Internet that she cheated on her husband. But does she know that it comes up as the first search result? Should she be told that? And then, do I give condolences to the colleague whose son was killed? I wish I knew none of this.” Signed, Scarred by Google.
Okay Emily, have you ever discovered something about someone on the Internet that you wish you never knew, and what do you do about it?
Emily: Well, I do have a friend who actually sent me to the Internet who said, “Oh, do you know if you Google my name, the first thing is some bizarre site a guy who has become an enemy of mine created, and it’s all about how I’m a pervert?” So, sure enough, I went and found it, but she knows all about it. So before we go and answer these questions, I have a question for you Farhad.
Emily: You’ve looked in to these reputation, defender, corrector sites. Do they work? Can you get this fixed if the first thing that comes up is some horribly embarrassing information?
Farhad: From what I can tell, they may work for some people. It depends on how common your name is, it depends on various other factors about the content that you’re trying to eradicate. What they can’t do is pull down that information, but one of the things they try to do is put more information up about you, try to help you make your blog more prominent to sort of change the ranking. And then they alert you to any new stuff that might come up on the Internet about you. But, I think it totally depends on the case, whether it works or not.
Emily: Well, in response to this letter, I think if there was ever a situation that calls for a case-by-case handling, it’s this. The technology is presenting you with information, but then you have to decide, in each case, whether this is something you in fact should acknowledge somehow you missed that a colleague’s child was killed. Well, that’s something you would want to express your condolences about.
On the other hand, if you’re finding something that happened years ago and this has never been mentioned to you, well then, you wouldn’t know. So, I think context is everything here on the personal stuff. You really can’t go wrong by pretending Google doesn’t exist if you come across these things.
However, the real estate agent… I might be inclined at the end of the whole relationship when you’ve bought the house or you haven’t bought the house to say, “Diane, you need to Google your name and see what comes up first. I think you want to know.”
Farhad: Yeah. Although, I bet Diane knows. Especially if you’re in a business like real estate where you might get a lot of your business from the Internet – I assume that Diane has done this search about herself and must know what comes up.
Emily: Well then, she needs to try to do something about it, because there are a lot of real estate agents out there and there’s just something kind of creepy if not “number one sales agent in the region” but “I’ve had 24 boyfriends” comes up.
There may be a case where someone just doesn’t Google their name; they’re just dealing within their real estate company’s website or whatever, and everyone’s too embarrassed to say something.
Farhad: I suppose that’s likely. I think it’s rare enough that in that case, in the real estate agent case, I really don’t think there’s a need for her to say anything. It’s pretty likely that the woman already knows about it, perhaps has tried to do something about it and has not been successful.
In the other case, the one where she found out that a colleague had this tragic event in her past, you’re right. I think that she shouldn’t pretend that this information is secret, because it’s not, and I bet that in this case too, the person in question knows that this information is on the Internet and prominent when their name is searched for.
I don’t think that the letter writer should go out of her way to mention it, but if there’s a time in conversation where the woman tells her she shouldn’t go out of her way to act surprised or something like that, I think it should be treated as common knowledge. Not discussed generally, but not pretended to be secret.
Emily: Because you’re such a technological person, you’re assuming that everyone is swimming in this sea of technology and if something is somewhere on the Internet, it’s just a given, everyone knows. How often do you Google your name, Farhad?
Farhad: Is this a trick question?
Emily: I’m curious.
Farhad: Maybe, at least once a week.
Emily: Really? See, I very rarely Google mine. For some reason I did, and I saw that somewhere my birth date was incorrect and made me a year older, so I did get that fixed. But here I am, I work for Slate; I’m online all the time. I rarely Google my name, so it could have that “cheating on my husband” scandal out there and I don’t even know about it.
Farhad: Emily, you should really Google your name, I’m telling you.
Emily: All right. But there you go. I don’t even Google my name very often, so I think you’re making an assumption about people’s knowledge about the universe of information that’s out there about them, and I think you have to be kind of careful about dropping this into conversation: “How do you know that?” “Oh, I was Googling your name and…” It’s odd.
Farhad: If listeners aren’t searching for themselves on the Internet, I think they should be. I guess I’m holding this up as a recommendation. You should search for yourself on the Internet because it’s one of the ways, perhaps one of the main ways, that people you meet – strangers – are going to find out information about you. I think prospective employers, new people you’re in a relationship with, new friends, everyone you meet is likely Googling you.
But I think that there may be a delicate way to reveal that you learned something about someone on the Internet without coming off like a stalker. I guess I don’t think that it’s a shameful thing to be searching for someone on the Internet, and if you say, “Hey, I was searching for your phone number and I couldn’t help but notice that you’ve had this tragic experience,” and continue with the conversation at that point, as I said, if it’s pertinent to whatever is being discussed. I guess I have the sense that someone wouldn’t find that alarming.
Emily: I’m going to go home and Google myself, so now I know why people are giving me those funny looks. So, do we agree or disagree? You should act like you haven’t learned this stuff on Google or everyone should assume that everyone knows everything about them because we’re all Googling each other? What is it?
Farhad: I think that if you learn something about someone on the Internet, you shouldn’t pretend that you don’t know it, and you should bring it up if it comes up.
Emily: And I don’t have such a blanket response. I think it depends on the nature of the relationship and the nature of the information, and it’s not shameful to have Googled someone. But if it’s not something you would have normally stumbled upon in the course of your relationship, it’s fine to just pretend you don’t know.
Send us your questions about shifting etiquette in the online age. Our address is firstname.lastname@example.org
Farhad: You can also join our Facebook page where we carry on the conversation throughout the week. Go to Facebook.com/digitalmanners.
Emily: And we’ll talk to you next time on Manners for the Digital Age.