Digital Manners: When the Internet Reveals Too Much

Navigating the intersection of etiquette and technology.
Nov. 1 2011 1:07 PM

Whoa, Google! TMI! (Transcript)

Farhad Manjoo and Emily Yoffe debate the question: Should you reveal that you learned something very personal about friends after Googling them?

Emily Yoffe:  “Oh Google, TMI!”

Farhad Manjoo:   I’m Slate’s technology columnist, Farhad Manjoo.

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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.

Farhad:  Yes.

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.

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