The Internet is for explorers, and as with any ripe terrain, there’s a fine line between discovery and exploitation. Think of our digital realm as a limitless stretch of open water. There's great access and unknown depths, but no lifeguard at hand to save us from drowning when we abuse that access.
Social media, still a beta lifeform, is particularly lawless — and sadly, it’s a slippery slope that can swallow up the insecure and impulsive. Anyone with a Tumblr account knows its promise and its danger, but even popular science is addressing the implications of the dark side of the Internet. Reports suggesting vaguely incriminating ties between sociopaths and moody social media regulars are trendy clickbait. Self-absorbed? Lurking online late at night? There’s a Dark Triad Theory for that. Don't have any sort of social media presence? You are considered a national risk. Regardless of psyche, people have always manipulated the web’s veil in their favor. Most users no longer hide behind old-school aliases and cloaked IPs, but we all take liberties online, blending fantasy and fact in our presentation, and even speaking in a clipped vernacular that exists only for screens.
What's more, we’re invaders. We scorn the NSA and employers for tracking our digital lives, but we use our own access to monitor other people’s lives, too — sometimes, because we are invited, but often simply because we’re voyeurs prowling for an easy fix. After all, there’s trouble wherever you look for it, and if you’re alone and already paranoid, you’re only an Instagram hunt away from Von Trier-level dissonance. Or, maybe you’re just curious? As with anything, there’s a spectrum.
Modern-day Alices must navigate the rabbit hole carefully, with grace and discretion. First step in staying un-creepy: figure out your intentions. Let’s say you just met (or are about to meet) a guy with potential — and you’re not (yet) linked on Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram. So far, it’s all been analog and vis–à–vis. You’re fascinated, freaked out, and just a bit tempted to cybersleuth. But, are you really afraid he’s a former convict or are you just trying to parse together his dating history? Chances are, it's the latter. Realize that this says more about you than it does him (and also, you could just let him tell you in due time...or even ask).
After an initial meet-and-greet, it is totally acceptable to Google someone's name, just to see what pops up. LinkedIn profiles, Instagram accounts, and Twitter handles are all par for the course. But, when you find yourself checking out the names of all the people who favorited his Tweets or adding "+girlfriend" into the Google search bar, you are risking being invasive. Think: If you are putting yourself at risk for finding out information you don't feel comfortable discussing with your snoop-ee, then you are going too far.
Information that you have no business learning through passive e-lurking may include: anyone’s college GPA; their political donation record; and the exact address of where they grew up (that also means attempting to Google Earth their parent’s property. Don't do that). Sadly, people finder apps are everywhere and can easily locate these very data nuggets for you. But remember, anyone who actually requires such detailed and sensitive info won’t have to resort to Google — a good way to check yourself if you’re feeling morally ambiguous about “researching” someone. Another chilling reminder is to consider that people can just as easily pop down your Google rabbit hole, too. Live by the sword, die by the sword.
Still not satisfied? Keep searching at your own peril, and know you are crossing a tricky line. Maybe halfway down the results page, you’ll find this guy’s Last.fm and discover you both love Portishead, specifically Third, but wouldn’t you rather discover that when you you let him scope your iPhone library? As early as 2008, social op-eds explored the unfortunate side of knowing too much about a potential lover too soon — thanks to pre-emptive Google stalking. If you're a fan of mystery and believe in organic growth, realize your cyber patrol will destroy any semblance of those natural wonders with information overload. Plenty of people create online profiles in the hopes someone will take note of their excellent cultural taste, their cool photos, and their electric wit — and that’s fine, but letting it color your perception doesn't arm you with more insight into this person. As a digital and social animal, you’re bound to come across that stuff anyway, and your person-of-interest will probably be all too glad to share it with you. Wait for it.
Of course, there are innocent, appropriate, and fully platonic reasons to Google someone — and especially their propositions. We meet new people — potential collaborators — at everything from networking events to the produce aisle. If you want to know more about the person who just emailed you about a sparkling business opportunity, by all means do a quick search. If someone hands you a card about DJ-ing their new venue, Google it! See what’s legit. Anytime someone might pay you to do something, research carefully to see if it’s worth it. In fact, it would be naive not to take advantage of prescreening in these cases; information is power, after all. Use it wisely.
In short, trying to gain a quick context of someone’s existence is one thing; going Scully on them is another. If you really like to pry so much, go be a private investigator. Otherwise, just admit it: You’re a bit of creeper.