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The Ethics of Digital Dating

  • AuthorHolly Richmond
  • Published Monday, April 1st, 2013
  • Comments7

The Internet makes it easy to find love but hard to leave it behind. In less than a minute, I can search thousands of OkCupid members’ profiles for the word “feminist,” click on a cute one (let’s call him Progressive84), stumble on his Twitter account with the same username, and read his 140-character thoughts all the way back to 2010. And if dating Progressive84 doesn’t work out, I can torture myself — with a glass of wine in me on a lonely Sunday night — with his cute new LinkedIn picture (hmm, he looks good without facial hair) and the inside jokes on his Facebook wall with some girl I’ve never met (but already resent). It’s enough to make a seemingly sane person shake her fist at the sky and thunder theatrically, “DAMN YOU, INTERNET!”

Is it worth Googling for a peek at a potential partner when he could virtually smear your relationship-entrails all over six months later? And perhaps more importantly, is it ethical?

There are three main tricky areas when trying to date ethically in the digital age:

– Searching for info about someone online before you meet – or early in the throes of dating

– Scouring the web for info after you’ve broken up

– Dissecting your failed relationship on blogs and social media sites

The “before” part of this equation seems harmless enough. You’re hardly alone: 43 percent of singles polled by the dating service It’s Just Lunch said they’d Googled someone before meeting. And’s estimates are even higher: “48 percent of single women research a date on Facebook before the first date (vs. 38 percent of men), although nearly half of single men (49 percent) think researching someone prior to a first date is unacceptable.” Should you hit pay dirt and find something like a criminal record, an Internet search can save you time or even your life, considering predators have murdered people they’ve met through; one 2005 estimate said 1 in 4 rapists found a victim by using an online dating site. (If safety and not curiosity is your main motivator, consider sticking to a dating site like, which claims to screen members against a U.S. criminal database in order to keep out felons, sex offenders and married people.) So where’s the line between keeping yourself safe and simply digging up dirt?

The situation becomes ethically murkier when you simply have a hankering for juicy deets about someone’s personality or past partners. If there’s nothing wrong with piecing together details from someone’s online dating profile and a cursory web search, then why do we feel guilty about it? “Googling a prospective date is shallow, intrusive upon your date’s dignity, and betrays a fundamental lack of faith about life, love, and the divine sweetness of the universe,” waxes one blogger. “It’s a search engine, not a crystal ball.”

Although that may be true, I think the guilt comes from knowing things about your potential date that you’re not supposed to know yet. It can be eyebrow-raising at best, and upsetting at worst, when someone mentions something you haven’t explicitly shared with them yet. Some may flat-out refuse to date you if you Google them, feeling legitimately violated. After all, you’d never actually visit a stranger’s workplace or show up at their band’s show before you met them. But doing the equivalent online is so easy and seemingly anonymous that it blurs our normal ethical boundaries, lulling us into a false sense that it’s okay. “Seemingly” is the key word – be aware that if you stumble on someone’s personal site, she may have tracking analytics in place that tell her someone in your area spent so much time on her site after Googling her. Rule of thumb: When in doubt, don’t. (Suggested guidelines for ethical dating are at the end of this piece.)

Similarly, why do we Facebook-stalk people after they’ve dumped us, becoming the digital version of a peeping Tom? “Breaking up in the age of social media addiction makes things much more complicated and it seems like the wounds take longer to heal,” mused NPR’s Shereen Meraji in a post about Facebook-stalking your ex. One commenter noted that staying away from your ex on social media was like trying to stick to a diet, easily avoiding temptation on some days and relapsing on others.

This virtual bingeing even made its way into The New York Times’ “Modern Love” column, in which one woman divulges spending hours reading an ex’s blog: “When I finally realized I had spent my workday this way, I felt kind of sick to my stomach, as if I had climbed through his bedroom window and stolen his journal from his dresser drawer.” Yet she found herself compulsively checking her ex’s blog daily and keeping it a secret from her husband – an ethical red flag for some. Only when the blog is deleted does she stop reading, concluding that, after all, it was “an intimacy that was unearned.”

To resist this “tenderness that lacked back and forth,” conventional wisdom advises liberally blocking, unfriending and deleting exes (after all, you can always reconnect after the wounds aren’t as oozy). Oddly enough, a 2012 study in the journal Cyberpsychology, Behavior, and Social Networking cautions against either Facebook-stalking your ex or completely cutting him off. The latter can cause your imagination to run wild, envisioning your ex with a great new partner. Psychology Today suggests, “The goal, then, should be to maintain a weak connection with your ex. Seeing their boring statuses…may be just enough to allow us to move on.” Easy for you to say, Psychology Today.

While Googling someone before a date can be awkward, and lurking online can be depressing, neither is as devastating as realizing your ex has blabbed about you online for anyone with an Internet connection to read. It’s the emotional equivalent of PETA dumping red paint all over your coat (which happens to be faux, thankyouverymuch). And it happens more often than people think: 95 percent of people surveyed think their partner won’t share their pictures or data, but 12 percent of people have had a partner or ex leak their personal info, Buzzfeed reports. Lying, cheating and dumping someone are the top three actions that prompt someone to leak private info about an ex [HR1] – obviously all highly emotionally charged actions, but hardly excuses for violating someone’s privacy.

Like Googling someone before you meet, spilling info about someone after you part ways is murky ethically as well. Blogs like Hollaback call out those who sexually harass others in public as a way of empowering the victim. If your partner verbally, physically or emotionally abused you and you want to warn others, that’s different than maliciously dishing dirt on someone who dumped you. Blogs like My Ex Was a Cheapskate, My Ex-Wife Is Crazy, and My Husband’s Crap clearly function differently than Hollaback, serving instead as a therapeutic exercise, passive-aggressive tactic or both. Blogging about your dating life might net those coveted pageviews (and in turn ad dollars), but the tradeoff may be resentment from friends and potential partners, as one Memphis blogger told

Bottom line? The Internet has definitely complicated relationships, making morality a big gray area. Consider the following guidelines for ethical dating in a world that’s always online:

  1. Think before you Google. What exactly are you trying to find out? Do you have any mutual friends who can vouch for this person so you don’t go down an Internet k-hole? Set some mental boundaries before you start Googling, like “I’ll check out links that suggest this guy could be bad news, but I’m NOT going to read his profiles on, Goodreads or Twitter.” Consider asking a close friend to Google this person instead of doing it yourself, and tell them only to report back to you if there are any red flags.
  2. …And think after you Google. If you slip up and go on an Internet stalking binge, ask yourself why afterward. Did you have a bad feeling in your gut? If so, listen to it – you don’t have to meet this person or go on another date, even if you agreed to in the past. Your safety is more important. When Googling, are you grasping for a reason to not go out with this person? If so, why? Are you worried they won’t like you? Are you afraid to tell them you actually aren’t interested? Or are you trying to decipher ambiguous behavior? Let me tell you from experience: Googling someone will not help you answer the question “Why hasn’t he texted?”
  3. Listen to your conscience. One writer confessed to his partner that he’d been reading her deeply personal blog: “I didn’t think it’d be fair to continue checking in on her online diary without her knowing I’d be doing so.” Again, pay attention to your gut – if you’re discovering information they haven’t chosen to disclose, weigh the invasiveness of the info and how long you think the relationship will last. Honesty becomes even more important if you want something lasting with this person.
  4. If caught, fess up (duh). That is, if you slip up and mention something they haven’t told you yet (and that you’d only know by searching online), and they call you on it, be honest. Say something simple like “Sorry. I get a little paranoid about meeting Internet strangers for the first time” with an embarrassed smile. Internet stalking plus lying gets you a guaranteed F- in ethics.
  5. Review your online presence and purge religiously for both your personal safety as much as your peace of mind and privacy. As the Brand Yourself blog suggests, “At the end of the day you won’t want your Googler to know more about you than you’re comfortable sharing.” Ultimately, we have a responsibility to erase traces of ourselves online that we aren’t okay with everyone seeing. Until you personally get burned, there’s often a delusion that only your friends read your blog, that nobody cares about that YouTube video of you from five years ago or saw your slightly offensive drunk tweet. Don’t get seduced by that thinking. Even hiding behind a username only works if you use a different one for every site.
  6. Tread extremely cautiously when dishing about your ex. Thanks to Facebook’s granular (if convoluted) privacy controls, you can post a vague, angsty song lyric in your status update, but hide it from your ex. If you have mutual Facebook friends, though, it gets tricky fast. The more public the forum you use, the more careful you should be. Even your tweets and personal Tumblr or WordPress blog should be vague because they’re just as Google-able as anything else, even if you thinkonly a handful of people read them.And if you write for a site like xoJane, The Hairpin or Jezebel, no matter HOW tempting it is to submit that “It Happened to Me: My Boyfriend Had a Poop Fetish” post, avoid defamation and major emotional fallout by resisting the urge to post names, photos (which can be reverse-image searched) and identifying details. You can mourn your relationship online, but first ask yourself, “If someone read this and had it out for my ex, could they threaten his/her safety?” Ideally, obtain permission from your partner or ex beforehand and maintain his or her anonymity.
  7. Be kind. “Show compassion” and “minimize harm” are two snippets from’s Bloggers’ Code of Ethics. Everybody says stupid stuff from time to time when tipsy, hurt or angry. Does your ex’s glib statement really need to live online in perpetuity? “I felt awful – not only because I’d said something so hurtful, but that her hurt was being broadcast to anyone and everyone who regularly read about her goings-on,” one writer divulged on’s blog. “There was no way I could undo it; my stupid comment would live on forever on her blog.” Consider extending a modicum of grace as a wise investment in your future karma.


Holly Richmond’s mission is to banish boring writing, which she has done for Grist, Microsoft, and others over the past seven years. She lives and dates in Portland, Oregon. Send job offers, flattery, and cat pictures to or check out

7 Responses to “The Ethics of Digital Dating”

  1. Jade Anderson says:

    As someone who’s grown up in the digital world, it seems perfectly normal for me to “investigate” any potential partners. I have never personally used any online dating systems, I tend to meet most potential boyfriends at parties/clubs (sad I know) or through friends. As soon as I get Mr. Potential’s first and last name I immediately log into Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram and try to learn as much information as I possibly can. (Each website can tell you something different.) As creepy as it sounds now that I am actually writing down what I do, I almost positive that everyone in my age group (male and female) does the same thing. Knowing that everyone does this also adds pressure to conform. I would feel uncomfortable going into a date if I didn’t social media stalk the life out of Mr. Potential because I would feel like he would know everything about me (through his own personal stalking) and I would know nothing about him, giving him the personal advantage. The Internet has made it so easy to find out personal information about a person that we’d rather learn about a person online first then to go in blind and know nothing. What I find most humorous about the whole situation is that even though we all know that we social media stalk one another, it is common courtesy to not openly admit that and then to go even further and act like you did not know certain things that your date tells you. In the years to come, I think it will become more and more morally ethical to learn information about your date before you meet them just simply because everyone will be doing it.

  2. Benita Gingerella says:

    I would have to agree that when I meet someone who I could “potentially date,” I do look them up on Facebook or Twitter. I agree that this action is becoming increasingly popular with the easy accessibility the Internet provides. It has even spread to looking up potential roommates, friends, etc. I know in high school, my friends and I would look up guys in our class and when I came to Loyola I looked up my roommate for freshmen year. Today, I feel like others will judge you if you don’t have some type of online profile. While I do often feel guilty about looking up profiles, I feel that it is also a person’s responsibility to control what goes on their profile and how accessible it is to the world. Since potential dates and future bosses often go through profiles, I’ve tried to rid my Facebook profile of any embarrassing or potentially harmful pictures, comments and statuses. I believe that if a person doesn’t want some information to be available to online world than they shouldn’t be putting it on their profile. No matter how unethical it is, I
    feel that people will still be viewing your profile without your knowing.

  3. Van says:

    Social networking has completely changed the dating game. Though I have never internet dated using sites like or eHarmony, it is crazy how even before we meet someone we can find all about them on the Internet. Before we meet someone, we have this ability to simply click on their Facebook profile and make judgements about them. Of course first impressions are important, and what you put online to represent yourself is important, you really can not decide whether or not you like a person just by looking at their profile pictures. Looking at someone before meeting them can ruin a date, or an overall impression of a person. In some ways it means playing it safe, but it also takes away the feelings of making a personal connection and learning about another individual. This also leads into the stalking your ex on social networking. We all do it. Even guys I have just dated I still like to look at who they are taking pictures with now, or what they are posted on Twitter. By checking up on these people, we find ourselves not being able to let go, or putting ourselves down for not being good enough for that person. Maybe thats just me. But this obsession with following up on these old flings and friends can damage us, and we begin to compare our selves with our Facebook friends and Twitter followers.

  4. George Roumeliotis says:

    I was drawn to this article because I am a big sports fan and because of the title I immediately thought of the Manti Te’o case where he was actually dating a fake person on the internet. Nothing of that case is really shown within this article, but the ethics of how to search or research a potential internet-date was definitely something that Manti Te’o should’ve considered before starting his “relationship”. I agree with Van’s comment below that social networking has totally changed the way people date. When people start a new relationship they tend to spend a lot of time on that persons Facebook page looking at recent as well as old pictures/statuses, which as hard as it is to control draw us to create preconceived notions on this individual from what we “learn” about them based off of only what they share within their internet page. I don’t really feel bad Facebooking a person that I’m just getting to know because it is stuff they share with you if you are “friends” but I would never actually Google some one and research their past on the internet. I feel that people should learn about others by actually meeting them and learn those things about them from their side of the story so you can understand more about them and their past instead of researching them through a search engine and drawing conclusions from things you come across. Like we were always told as children growing up, “don’t judge a book by it’s cover”.
    If we live in a society where we’re too scared to get to know people without first googling them, we have bigger problems on our hands than just the results we find while searching/stalking them on the internet.

  5. It is very true that the world of dating has changed
    significantly from the way it used to be in the past. The access that we now
    have to information online really makes it very simple to learn a lot about
    someone you have never met. I understand why people would find the need to
    search someone on Google or social networking sites like Facebook or Twitter
    before they meet their dates, but I also see why it is unethical in some ways.
    We like to know we are safe, and we all like to feel safe as well. We don’t
    ever want to be put into situations that could be harmful, so I think that when
    we have the control and ability to protect ourselves by using the internet to
    learn about someone we have never met, then it helps. It would be hard to
    accept coming into a dating situation with someone who is dangerous or has a
    problematic background knowing that maybe a little bit of searching online could
    have avoided the whole issue. However, I also believe that people should have
    the ability to show you who they are and for us to make our own opinion based
    on the actual meeting we have with someone. Our past experiences may not have
    been our proudest moments, and people change and grow up, so it’s also not fair
    to create a judgment about someone when it might be completely wrong. Everyone
    deserves a chance.

  6. Alex Crissey says:

    The new world of online dating has opened up a lot of new doors that didn’t exist
    before, but it has also opened up several new cans of worms that no one ever
    had to deal with before. Now I’ve never used online dating myself, but I
    understand these sorts of ethical dilemmas myself, and I’ve definitely looked
    up the Facebook pages of girls I’ve met. In some ways it’s a great resource
    when used the right way: you can find out some things about the person, and
    maybe if you’re on the fence about whether to send them that text, this can
    help you decide. On the other hand, aren’t these the kind of things you’re
    supposed to be learning through normal conversation? You should probably allow
    the person the opportunity to tell you about themselves before you go digging
    on the internet. Then again, these things are posted on the internet for anyone
    in the world to see. There really is no right or wrong answer, as the problem
    simply hasn’t existed long enough for that to be the case. I agree that it’s
    important to think about why you’re looking up this person, both before and

  7. disqus_VxbC1l5n5G says:

    With technology right at our fingertips, one can assume that most people would search for a person on the internet before actually meeting them. I can understand why someone would do that, more for safety reasons than anything else. But for me, when you google someone before meeting them, it might take away from the time you spend with one another. The fun part about meeting someone new is learning about them first hand. And I believe when you research someone, it takes all the fun out of the new experience. I have never googled someone before going on a date. I also do meet people in the real world rather than dating sites. I understand why dating sites do exist but, in some way it numbs our social skills and removes our ability to go up to someone new and strike up a conversation just for the hell of it. My online presence may be hard to find because there are many people with the same name as me, and are much more famous around the world. I also added my middle initial, which most people don’t know about, just to make sure that no one who tries to stalk me, actually can. With technology developing everyday, I believe if googling is used in moderation and for safety reasons, it is acceptable, but if you are using all your research to find out about someone before you meet them, it ruins the whole experience.

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