By HENRY ALFORD
IT starts with a lowering of our shoulders. You and I have just befriended each other, and now we are well into our first cocktails on our first-ever get-together. We’ve bonded over a mutual appreciation of Roald Dahl, and now you’ve endeared yourself further with your comment that the name Real Simple sounds like a manual for people with learning disabilities.
When we hit our first lull in the conversation, I try to bridge it by asking you about the two years you lived in Boulder, Colo.
“How did you know I lived in Boulder?” you ask, darty-eyed.
“I Googled you last night. I’m sorry.”
“No, no. I’m, uh?... I’m flattered?”
You are? Which is what I was hoping for? But suddenly the tiniest shred of doubt is implied by all the tonal upticks.
“It’s perfectly natural and almost always appropriate,” said Kate Fox, a social anthropologist, about the practice of Googling social or business contacts before getting together with them.
“Obviously, one is always going to have to be discreet when talking about what you’ve found,” said Ms. Fox, a director of the Social Issues Research Center in Oxford, England. “But our brains haven’t changed since the Stone Age, and humans are designed to live in small groups in which everyone knows one another. Googling is an attempt to recreate a primeval, preindustrial pattern of interaction.”
But by the same token, doesn’t taking this shortcut to a primeval, preindustrial pattern of recognition sometimes rob encounters of their inherent mystery? The song is called “Getting to Know You,” not “I’ve Already Researched You.” Sometimes it’s better not to pore over the dossier handed to us, even if it comes from a natural blonde with the State Department in a sweater set and pearls.
Worse, sometimes our online research lands us in thickets. Tina Jordan, an executive in book publishing who has the same name as a former girlfriend of Hugh Hefner, said, “I typically tell any blind dates before I meet them that they probably shouldn’t Google my name, otherwise they’ll be sorely disappointed when they meet me.”
Masami Takahashi, an associate professor of psychology at Northeastern Illinois University, used to use Japanese characters for his name whenever he delivered papers at academic conferences in Japan, until a colleague who had Googled him pointed out that Mr. Takahashi shared the same name in Japanese as a pornographic-film star. Mr. Takahashi said, “Since then, I use only the English alphabet for my name.”
Indeed, to Google is often to create expectation. A friend of Dean Olsher, a public-radio host and a musician, wanted to set him up on a date with one of Mark Morris’s dancers this year. Mr. Olsher promptly went online and started swooning over a gorgeous portrait of the dancer by Annie Leibovitz. But on the evening that Mr. Olsher and his friend trooped to Brooklyn to see her perform and to meet her, Mr. Olsher’s friend became distracted and never engineered the fix-up.
The disappointed Mr. Olsher said: “I don’t regret Googling her at all. I’m so baffled by this idea that we’re not supposed to Google people. Why would there be a line? Like everyone else is allowed to know something but I’m not?”
In business, the line described by Mr. Olsher barely exists, if at all, because Googling is expected. Job applicants who reveal their ignorance of the doings or leadership of the company they are interviewing with can expect to meet with no enthusiasm. “I always Google my prospective clients,” said Janet Montano, a real estate agent in Tampa, Fla. “The mug shots come right up on the top. ‘Not going to get in my car!’ ”
But Ms. Montano said she would never tell a potential homebuyer that she had Googled him. “It’s not very polite,” she said. “I don’t go there.” In one instance, she said, the search worked in a homebuyer’s favor. “It was someone who I probably wasn’t going to work with,” she said. “But then I checked him out and saw who he was.” When she learned he was a popular radio disc jockey, she realized he was a qualified buyer.
Ms. Jordan said: “On a professional level, it seems prudent to optimize one’s knowledge about a person, as long as you don’t make them feel like you’re a cyberstalker. On a personal level, though, it could be loaded. Sometimes best to let sleeping Google-surfing lie.”
Indeed, those of us prone to researching our new friends and acquaintances might profit from the realization that very little, if any, of what we hounds dig up in the garden needs to be presented to our masters. The devil, after all, is in the details. If we tell a new friend that we’ve read her LinkedIn entry or her wedding announcement, it probably won’t be perceived as trespassing, as long we bear no ulterior motives. If we happen to reveal that we’ve read her long-ago abandoned blog about her cat, we’re more likely to be seen as chronically bored than menacing.
But if we let on that we know how much she paid for her home, or who she made campaign contributions to, suddenly her ears might prick up.
These small bouts of alarm are only natural, according to Ms. Fox, the social anthropologist. “We’re getting back to life in a village,” she said. “It’s as if you’d returned to a small village and you started learning things about your neighbors while buying a pint of milk. It would feel uncomfortable at first. But at the back of your brain, it wouldn’t. It’s how we’re wired.”
Nevertheless, you can hire companies now to alter what comes up when people Google you, a fact that speaks to the public’s anxiety about the valance accorded search results. Under pressure from big media companies eager to combat online privacy, Google recently agreed to alter its search algorithms to favor Web sites that offer legitimate copyrighted movies, television and music; is a nonbusiness version of this advent in our future?
In an ideal world, we would all use Google to be better friends by having better recall. There’s nothing more flattering than the person who can summon from the depths of time your mother’s name or your wedding toast; you’ll warm your niece’s heart when you appear to have “remembered” her yearlong stint working at Macy’s.
Some of us have even been known to operate as unsolicited Google elves: earlier this year, hours before having dinner with a group of writers and editors, I found myself e-mailing two of the editors to remind them that their publication had printed one of the writers’ accounts of having recently lost her husband.
Consider the case of Joe Cramer, an auto detailer in Wyoming, Mich. He contracted carbon monoxide poisoning from an industrial accident in 1978, and for two years lost his memory and his ability to empathize. “I had to be guided like a little child,” Mr. Cramer said. “We didn’t have Google then.” His wife sat him on the couch and showed him pictures of family and friends, explaining who each was. His sister-in-law stood next to him at his shop, whispering prompts and reminders into his ear.
When his memory and empathy returned two years later, “I was inundated with waves and waves and waves of guilt,” he said. “The sadness of not knowing what result I’d get from responses from people was devastating. I lost a couple friends because of my inability to remember stuff or to get into the feelings of various situations.”
Mr. Cramer added: “I use Google constantly now. Oh, heavens, it would have been so much easier for me if I’d had it back then. I wouldn’t have been such a lost soul.”