It has become standard practice to run a thorough “background investigation” after matching with someone online. Thanks to the wonders of technology, online footprints have become largely visible for the world to see. Ranging from high school sports highlights to Twitter handles and the occasional mugshot, it’s not hard to gather a sense of someone’s online presence before you meet with them in person.
However, a simple Google search can reveal much more than what’s written in a dating app bio—for better, and sometimes for worse. Whether as due diligence, or when embarking down the background searching rabbit hole, daters can come up with a little too much information. (As it turns out, first impressions aren’t all that organic when you’ve already identified someone’s family ancestry dating back to the 1700s.)
I went on a date without stalking him before meeting him. I think that’s an accomplishment in life.
— Carissa🦇 (@carissaxx3) November 4, 2018
What goes online often stays online forever, including some of the not-so-favorable information. And the extent to which that information should be taken into account is debatable. It might be helpful to know if, for instance, the guy you’re about to go on a date with is married. But ten years after someone’s college DUI, should they still be viewed unfavorably by someone they’ve never met? Should you hold someone’s cringey high school blog posts against them? In other words, how far is too far when it comes to social media stalking?
I have admittedly stalked and re-stalked guys I matched with on the internet. As a journalist, I feel I reserve the right to learn everything I can about a particular subject, even when my subjects are online randos. Once, this led me to running a trusty Google search on a guy I went to college with. He found me online, we messaged, and I quickly found his mugshot for an assault charge. Immediately, I thought the worst, like a domestic violence incident, a bar fight, something like that.
Eventually I decided I had to address this matter before the conversation led to the “we should meet up” line. Casually (but not really) I begged the question, “So why exactly were you arrested on an assault charge?” As it turns out, he had been really drunk at a college football game, fell over the sideline of the bleachers and landed on a cheerleader. Apparently this warrants an assault charge.
stalking my moms dates online to see if they’re worthy
— kay (@kaysdam) August 24, 2019
Although I ended up feeling much better for my own safety, I also felt kind of bad for bringing up the (probably) dark time in this guy’s life. After all, I’m sure his little slip came with a slew of legal and social consequences. Plus, bringing up someone’s criminal past didn’t exactly prompt him to want to meet up—if anything, it solidified the end of our online conversations. I thought that initially, my online stalking had helped me dodge a bullet, but in reality, the only thing I dodged was a date with a potential match. Although I felt guilty for jumping to conclusions, did this reality check stop me from online “researching” subsequent internet matches? Nope.
Another time I witnessed online stalking backfire came from an experience of my friend. She met a guy online and the experience went from zero to “it turns out his dad’s an actual mob boss” real quick. While most people would probably have the common sense to go running for the hills, as a fellow journalist, the prospect of meeting a mob boss’s son in real life was an opportunity that absolutely could not be missed. After they met up and she inquired about his father’s “business proceedings,” her date expressed extreme displeasure in the first date topic. What was especially disappointing was that, dating credentials-wise, he was the total package: smart, cute, well-traveled, and employed. Yet, after copping to researching his family’s illegal activity, it’s safe to say they didn’t meet up again.
On the other hand, my friend Amy recently announced that she has completely stopped looking up the guys she meets online. She says since doing this, she feels like the quality of her in-person interactions have actually improved. Amy didn’t even know the last name of the guy she last met up with, and said it was refreshingly awesome. Going into the date with zero expectations, she was able to focus on the guy’s character and the quality of the date, rather than worrying about his past relationships and how they are going to influence his current interests. He was nice and funny, and at the time that was all that really mattered. To date, they’re still seeing each other.
My mom finding my dates’ profiles online and stalking them even when she only knows the third letter of their first name and which school they went to when they were 12pic.twitter.com/nu1mwoCCYJ
— Cool Beans (@jo_maybe) October 14, 2019
To find out which method of online dating “preparation” is better from a professional standpoint, I asked clinical psychologist and author of How to be Single and Happy, Jennifer L. Taitz, PsyD, ABPP, to weigh in. As an author and an assistant clinical professor in the Department of Psychiatry at the University of California, Los Angeles, Taitz specializes in psychological advancements that help people sidestep habits that limit their joy.
“Let’s admit it, most of us research all the time! If you’re the type of person to check out a restaurant menu and reviews before trying a new spot, of course it makes sense to get details about someone you’re investing time in,” Taitz said. “Getting a bit of information can make you feel everything from safe to excited.”
However, Taitz explained that online stalking can present challenges, as information solely found online can be very misleading. As an alternative to become a research pro, she recommends you accept uncertainty and learn to see assumptions with perspective. This means understanding that online information can easily be misinterpreted through individual points of view. She added that online obsessing can lead daters to either idealizing their matches, or writing them off prematurely.
“We forget when we’re browsing and hunting for details, we’re not necessarily dealing with actual facts and we can get our hopes up or miss out,” Taitz stressed. “Sure, to some degree doing your own background check can increase safety, though there are other ways to feel secure—meet somewhere that feels comfortable, ask questions, etc.”
For this reason, in Taitz’s opinion, a middle path between online research and organic first impressions is best. She explained that meeting someone in-person can yield a lot of information right away, whereas meeting someone on an app can expand a dater’s circle and allow them to potentially learn what their match may be looking for.
Accidently liking someones photo u are creeping on damnnnnnn smh
— Lamar Edmonds (@MrBestOf2Worlds) August 17, 2013
“Your time and mental space is precious, so it’s helpful to think about costs and benefits,” Taitz said. “If you spend a little time and feel better knowing more, go for it. If you’re looking at Instagram photos going way back and creating stories, you deserve to do something more relaxing!”
With this in mind, Taitz recommends moving off dating apps and meeting up in person as soon as possible. She says there’s little downside if you plan to meet somewhere convenient and in public, where either an in-person connection or quick escape can happen. To set your life up for happiness, Taitz recommends living in the moment and doing what you love, and I’m guessing that’s not drowning in social media or getting stuck in a long back-and-forth.
My personal advice? There’s no shame in a simple Google search, but learn to realize when you’ve passed “simple” and crossed over into “extensive.” Then, stop. Also, don’t accidently “like” any of their photos—that’s creepy.
Images: Mikayla Mallek / Unsplash; carissaxx3, kaysdam, jo_maybe, mrbestof2worlds / Twitter
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