I’m an investigator, by hobby if not by trade; the kind of person who looks in stairwells just to see where they go.
So when I meet a new, interesting couple at a wedding and find out they’re prosecutors, I look them up in a database of court cases to see if they’ve worked on anything interesting. Or, if I know someone who works in the entertainment industry, I’ll look up his or her credits on IMDb, Variety.com or Studiosystem.com.
At a conference, when people asking questions announce who they are and where they’re from, I’ll see if I can find them on Google in the time it takes for their question to be answered.
When our neighbor tells me she’s bought a townhouse, I deduce which real estate listing it is based on clues from our conversation. (How many bedrooms? How far away? Do you think it’ll take much work before it’s ready for you to move in? Got it!)
And when my mom tells me she fell asleep watching a movie on TV, I’ll try to figure out which film it was from the first half of the plot. Mom likes this too because it means I can fill her in on how the movie ended.
However, as more and more personal information -- information that’s often impromptu and unfiltered at its origin, like blog comments, Facebook wall posts and Flickr party pictures -- moves online, my habits are bumping into a shifting (though not entirely unjustified) expectation of privacy in online spaces.
I think most people would agree it’s probably kosher to look up someone’s LinkedIn profile after you’ve met them at a conference. But is it all right to do that to your landlord? If someone gives you his or her e-mail address, is it OK to then check that person’s domain registration to find out where they live? (And does it matter why you’re doing it? Is plain curiosity worse than to find out if they live in the same area that you’ve visited as a tourist?)
Is it OK to follow the Twitter feeds of people you’ve never met in person? What if it’s because they’re in your industry? Your neighborhood? Or if they’re just funny? Or cute? If a friend of a friend you meet at a party talks about having traveled someplace, is it a faux pas to search for his vacation photos on Flickr and comment on them? What if they are a woman’s photos? Are there different rules for men and women, as searchers and searchees?
I recently met a woman while playing ultimate (the Frisbee sport). She seemed outgoing and was a decent player, and it was the end of the summer season. We talked on the field, introduced ourselves, but had just the briefest of conversations. I knew my team needed players for the fall, and I remembered her name, so I looked her up on Facebook. Through Facebook, I sent her a message about the fall season and a “poke” -- a sort of a nonverbal online nudge -- and forgot about it. Six weeks later, I rediscovered her name on a to-do list, and I looked her up again. She was gone. Weird, I thought. Who gives up their account on “Crackbook?”
It took a day or two for it to dawn on me that she probably hadn’t left Facebook. She’d probably blocked me.
That’s a weird feeling. It seems slightly wrong to even tell the story; it feels a bit like I’m admitting to having done something creepy. And it makes me wonder whether I’ve been blocked by others on Facebook or other networking sites. I’ve done my share of ignoring messages and declining requests. But blocking seems a little more final. Isn’t blocking something you do to a stalker? It’s like I’ve been judged for something I didn’t do -- or possibly for something someone else once did.
Since being blocked, I’ve been second-guessing my web-searching habits -- and yet, I know that I’m not doing anything beyond looking at what’s freely available. I just do it more often than most, and I’m better at it than some.
The moral of the story? I don’t know. I guess it’s that online spaces you might think are private (such as Facebook), aren’t, and what you might think is acceptable online behavior (was it the poke?), isn’t. And that the lines aren’t just blurred, they haven’t stopped moving yet.
Travis F. Smith is a journalist and website developer for Hop Studios in Vancouver, Canada.