I got in a fight with one of my friends last month. Naomi had been on several dates with a new love interest when he asked if she’d watched YouTube clips of his stand-up comedy yet. “I said, ‘I have not Googled you because I’d rather get to know you as a real person,’” she told me via Gchat. Internet-stalking new acquaintances is, at this point, so ingrained that the idea of skipping the ritual actually alarmed me. Failure to look someone up online seemed almost rude, a sign of disinterest. Am I even capable of thinking about a topic — human, animal, vegetable, or otherwise — without performing a topic-adjacent Google search at some point?
“It’s the ultimate abstinence,” Naomi continued. “When everything is accessible, sometimes it’s hotter NOT to go there. What if waiting to Google is even hotter than building up tension before you have sex?”
It was like she was telling me the sky was green instead of blue, or that gravity was a myth. The logic was so strange to me that I actually became belligerent. I demanded she reveal her date’s full name, then barraged her with information, pictures, and links to his videos. “I don’t want to see it,” Naomi protested. “This is for your own good,” I snapped. “I know a girl who went on a date and was so into the guy, and then she Googled him and THE ENTIRE FIRST PAGE OF RESULTS was about his wedding. IGNORANCE IS NOT AN EXCUSE.” I had become a Google monster, the social terror that Big Data hath wrought.
Worse, I had become passé. When I surveyed our friends about the topic, I discovered more fell into Naomi’s camp than mine. After years of negotiating the onslaught of personal information available online, most had concluded that stalking dates online was a fool’s errand. Not everyone had Naomi’s self-control, but, like her, many defaulted to the language of chastity when discussing online date research. Googling may be “tempting,” but “resisting” is important until you are “ready.” When The Guardian asked readers whether “stalking a crush online” was a digital sin, 24 percent voted to “condemn.” In fact, amid a backlash against the personal information free-for-all, a new generation of dating start-ups has taken a minimalist approach: Tinder and Hinge have ditched the traditional profile; Twine limits access to pictures.
Until a solid interpersonal rapport had been established, Naomi theorized, out-of-context cyber detritus is a distraction at best, prejudicial at worst. Cringe-worthy details that seem like a deal-breakers early in a relationship may become endearing later on. Even material provided deliberately can be damning, particularly in the early stages of a relationship. “If I’d seen his OKCupid profile before we met, I might not have dated him,” an engaged friend named Jenny said of her husband-to-be. “He had this picture where he’s pretending to play a guitar, surrounded by beer bottles. It sounds so douchey, even though he really isn’t like that.” That’s not to say snap judgments don’t happen IRL — but when superficial problems are discovered in person, explanations are easier to come by.
For those prone to romantic obsessing, the polite distance established by refraining to Google can serve as a prophylactic. “I don’t Google for deal-breakers, I Google to see if someone lives up to some fictional myth in my head,” another female friend confessed. “The internet falsely inflates people for me. Like I discovered this guy I was going on a date with was a boxer from Texas and I was like, Yessss, he is a ‘real man.’ Whereas in person I wasn’t actually that into it.” Separating her expectations from reality left her feeling deflated.
A male friend who thinks Googling dates is creepy told me he nevertheless found himself viewing a new paramour’s Instagram profile a few weeks ago. “She found me and liked a photo I’d posted of myself, which I found exciting. But then I clicked through to her profile and she seems to be close with someone I think has a negative opinion of me. Now I wish I didn’t know, because I’m filling up with anxiety. Did they talk about me? Will they later? Am I doomed to be alone forever because I pissed off a popular ex-girlfriend? I’ve gone down an unhealthy road of hand-wringing.”
The impulse to snoop behind a date’s back is, of course, as old as dating itself. But information gleaned from gossip is limited in quantity, and comes packaged with its source. As the internet enables us to meet people outside our social context — and to glean information about and from anyone — regulating information is as formidable a task as the matchmaking process itself. To help users filter staggering numbers of newly accessible suitors, the first generation of online dating websites provided lengthy profiles and questionnaires, encouraging a hyperspecific approach to seeking mates. But too much information also causes problems. The most alienating profiles, after all, are those too long to read in their entirety. When I asked Lisa Hoehn, the editor behind online-dating ghostwriting service Profile Polish, to tell me about the worst profiles she’d ever seen, she didn’t recount cheesy jokes or egregious pictures — she rattled off a list of staggering word counts.
But dating with an intentional blind spot eventually got to Naomi. A few weeks after our Gchat fight, she caved and watched her date’s stand-up comedy. “I watched them,” she announced by text. “Finally!!! Kind of good, right?” Downright endearing, she agreed.
* Names changed to protect the innocent from those with sluttier Google habits.