In early January we are inundated with advertising campaigns telling us that we can have a fresh start at the beginning of the year. The very fabric of American culture is practically built on the concept of reinventing oneself, and so many books, and programs promise us that with commitment and newly configured formulaic steps, we are on our way to forevermore releasing our past.
And then there is the matter of the internet.
Searching for Answers Online
It is hard to go through a desert of loneliness (such as a divorce) without getting online and looking for wisdom and validation that you will one day be ok. When we feel cast aside and question our identities and values, of course we hop on dating sites, post on divorce forums, and join support groups from the comfort of our laptops at 1am.
Many of us have benignly done all of the above without considering the lingering consequences of reaching out into cyberspace with our hearts open and our fingers numb.
The Miracles and Horrors of Easy Online Connections
When I started the Turning a New Love Leaf Meetup.com group, group, I was excited to provide a safe space for folks to connect at monthly in person meetings. Through our café discussions questioning the factors that lead to relationship longevity, workshops on how to connect with people through values instead of superficial interests and field trips to see films and plays about arranged marriage and dating in World of Warcraft, I thought I was adding a multi-cultural, feminist footnote to the American, self-help history timeline. Twenty years ago, I would have had to make and post fliers, and made dozens of phone calls, but now all it takes is a few minutes to set up my group, and voila! I am hosting a community of people searching for authenticity and purpose after their divorce or breakup. I thought I was birthing the self-reinvention love child of Wayne Dyer and Elizabeth Gilbert (ignore the age and personality difference of these divergent non-denominational, spiritual divorcees)
Then one day one of my Meetup members sent me this:
“My date searched my name online, and the first two entries showed I was in breakup support groups”
This is what one of my Meetup members told me, and my thoughts raced. My online Meetup group that allowed anyone to go online, and see that in no more than 31 days a group of people taking the high road in the face of heartbreak will be convening in San Francisco, might have costed a healing heartbroken man a date. After chastising myself for my short-sightedness in my typical self-blaming style, I started questioning the factors around me that contributed to this situation.
Why did she tell him that she Googled his name? Why does Meetup.com allow this information to be searchable? Do I have any responsibility in managing this?
Tips About Your Online Presence and Privacy
There is no simple answer to any of those questions, but the incident prompted me to do some cogitating and sleuthing. Through looking inward to my core values and outward in the bowels of the internet, here is what I found:
1. Search engines crawl and record public web pages such as Meetup.com and public Facebook pages (not the Breakup Breakthrough group, because it is closed).
2.Once you take your name off those Meetup groups, or other public pages, it will no longer show up in search results. It may take up to 30 days for your name to stop appearing in search results.
3.There is nothing inherently wrong with having people know that you are proactively seeking community after a breakup.
4. Your search results on your computer are tailored to you. The results you see when you Google yourself at home are different from what others see when they Google you. Try using a friend’s computer or a library computer. Read this article, to better understand how this works.
5. Exercise caution and an open mind when searching the name of someone you are starting to date.
I shared some of the above information with him, respected his leave from our group, and sent out an email to the rest of my group members informing them that everything they wrote in their profile (such as the response to “Are you going through a breakup?”) is visible to all members who join our gateless Meetup Group.
To Research Your Date Online or Not?
Knowledge about a person biases us, and such knowledge can screen passionate, outspoken people out of our lives before we know them. Have you ever had a bias against someone because they did time in prison, worked for a company accused of misogynistic practices, or supposedly cheated on a partner? Have you ever become really close with someone and then found out their first high school relationship led to a statutory rape conviction? Let someone you are meeting for the first time tell their own story, and as you get more serious with them, then consider finding out if you share common Facebook friends, or if they are a relative of Hitler.
I recently found out that two people I know spent time in prison, and two others are grandchildren of Nazis. Thankfully these were face to face conversations, and I found myself curious and compassionate, and able to process this information through our face to face communication.
The Wild West has long since been industrialized and colonized, yet the Wild West coming out of Silicon Valley is populated with nebulous privacy policies, cookies, stalkers, soul sisters in far flung countries, celebrities on Reddit and oppressed people tweeting their way to visibility.
Never underestimate the power of the Internet to bring us to connection and healing we haven’t found in our analog world, or to permanently stain our reputation and welfare.