A Web of Answers and Questions




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.”
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.
 
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