Are you googling yourself out of a relationship?
Doing a quick search on a prospective lover could be seen as wise, but making assumptions on what you find – and letting someone's online life affect your real one – can be emotionally dangerous, discovers Tanya Sweeney
In a sane and just world, most men would jump at the chance to go on a date with a pretty female TV presenter. But, as dating coach Avril Mulcahy attempted to weave her matchmaking magic on behalf of one of her high-profile clients, one potential paramour had other ideas.
"Before they even met, the guy had this huge file of different things that he knew about her," recalls Mulcahy (www.avrilmulcahy.com). "She was really taken aback by it. He was really inquisitive about her past history on their first date. Her reaction was, 'wait a minute, some of these things happened 10 years ago'. It felt less like a date and more like an interview."
It's long been said that dates are job interviews with cocktails thrown in, but in the badlands of digital-era dating, this pithy description takes on a whole new meaning. As anyone who has spent five minutes being single will attest, it's a jungle out there. And, as the adage goes, forewarned is forearmed. If you subscribe to the idea that knowledge is indeed power, it's very likely you've not been on a date without some thorough spadework happening beforehand. LinkedIn, Google, Facebook, Twitter ... with a few clicks, it's very easy to know just what you might be getting yourself into.
I do it ostensibly for screening purposes, or as an act of diligence. It makes good sense to make sure that I'm not about to go for coffee with a psychopath, hardened criminal or car clamper. And in an age where information is rife, flying past our eyes at a rate of knots, we've developed a strange sort of curiosity about other people. Our investigative skills are well-honed. We research other people, building up a profile on them for better or worse ... mainly because we can.
Cyberpsychologist Nicola Fox Hamilton (www.nicolafoxhamilton.com) concedes that around 81% of people misrepresent themselves online, but mainly by a small amount.
"People add a couple of inches to their height, or take a few pounds from their weight," she observes. "For the most part, they're pretty small lies."
Still, it has created a culture of mistrust and suspicion, which drives us online in the quest for answers.
"There will always be an element of uncertainty when it comes to communicating with someone online," she says. "Googling seems to reduce this uncertainty. People do the research to allow themselves to communicate more freely and possibly build up a relationship."
Getting the lowdown online on a potential lover is such standard-issue behaviour that recently Maureen O'Connor, a New York Magazine writer, was moved to describe not Googling your date as The New Abstinence. "When everything is accessible, sometimes it's hotter NOT to go there," she quotes a friend as saying.
But for millions of those looking for love, the idea of going without seems a touch bizarre. "Internet-stalking new acquaintances is, at this point, so ingrained that the idea of skipping the ritual actually alarmed me," wrote O'Connor. "Failure to look someone up online seemed almost rude, a sign of disinterest."
Of course, doing a spot of sleuthing on a potential partner isn't strictly confined to our times. Years ago, it took a few crafty, surreptitious phonecalls to family and friends. But in this day and age, where does a healthy bit of research end and downright stalking begin? It's not unusual to start looking at the profile not just of someone we're interested in romantically, but also those of their exes, friends and family. A few innocent, curious clicks, and you've wandered right off the path of normality.
"Let's be fair ... if 10 or 20 years ago, you went on a date with someone and started driving past their house, or their family's house, or finding out where they lived, that would constitute stalking and be seen as genuinely frightening behaviour," observes Mulcahy.
"This new approach is building a lot of fear in people," asserts Mulcahy. "It makes people way too selective. It fuels jealousy and distrust, which is a totally negative start to a relationship. I think it's funny too that in this country, we will get drunk with someone and go home with them, not knowing anything about them. But then on the flipside, we're all about getting this information about people online and building up our own impression on them. And it's stopping people from going on dates, because they eventually find something they don't like online when they look hard enough."
In this day and age however, it all seems like good clean fun ... but recently, Jody Day, the founder of Gateway Women (an organisation providing support to childless women), has described being on Facebook as 'self-harm for childless women'. As in, scrolling through your newsfeed is enough to elicit a negative response – seeing pictures of an ex and their new partner, your mates' babies and seemingly perfect lives, and imagining that everyone has it great except for you. This is more than the FOMO of your twenties – this could be emotionally damaging, for both men and women. In a dog-eat-dog world, knowledge isn't just power. It becomes a weapon; something that's becoming more hindrance than help.
Herein lies the other rub: Google and social media don't necessarily paint an accurate picture. We don't get the full background check you might desire, you get whatever links have been Search Engine Optimized, whatever pics the person in question has deemed okay to post, whatever information they've chosen to "share". This could be hiding myriad idiosyncracies, or bigging up minor attributes – basically, you don't know what you're getting until you meet someone in the flesh, and even then you could be mistaken about lots of "info" you've gathered.
Certainly, a quick Google on myself (and I wouldn't advise it as a hobby, for that way madness lies) brought up some stuff I wish had been buried deep into the annals of the Internet. And everyone runs the risk of running into something unsightly about a new flame. As a generation, we're relatively new to this Internet stuff: we're the first generation to grasp that we say and do things online that will ultimately be there for life.
Plus, it's easy to make assumptions on what you're presented with. That guy your potential date flirts with on Twitter? Could be her ex's best mate or an old colleague, for all you know.
"Your online character is often different to your real character," concedes Mulcahy. "If someone Googles me for instance, they see I'm a matchmaker, but they don't get much information on what I'm like as a person. Often when I set two people up on a date, someone will have Googled the other person and they contact me to say that they don't want to go on the date anymore."
Fox-Hamilton says: "In online dating, research suggests that the less information someone puts into their profile, the more likely people are to talk to them. The more specific you get, the more likely the person checking you out is to come across something they're not into. "If you encounter information about someone that you don't like early on, it does colour your subsequent perception of them in a negative way," she adds.
Going the way of O'Connor and abstaining from online research on a potential partner starts to make sense. Not only does this abstinence remove that unseemly, forensic aspect of dating ... it also helps to put the innocence, the magic, back into a fledgling relationship. The Internet might well be written in ink, but it helps to remember that anything that happened in the past is best left there, and assumptions about the present are just that, for now.
"Ultimately, the date and getting to know someone is the best part of meeting a new lover," surmises Mulcahy. "Following online is the faffing about part, and people expend way more energy on it than on the date itself. The Internet is wonderful, but it hasn't caught up with the butterflies and chemistry that can only come about from being face to face."
First published in INSIDER Magazine, exclusive to Thursday's Irish Independent