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 AskMen.com 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 Match.com’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 Match.com; 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 True.com, 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 Match.com 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 Match.com.
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:
- 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 Last.fm, 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.
- …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?”
- Listen to your conscience. One Match.com 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- Be kind. “Show compassion” and “minimize harm” are two snippets from CyberJournalism.net’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 Match.com’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.