Wednesday, December 03, 2008

I'm currently doing commissioning work for a textbook at work, contacting academics and asking them if they'd be willing to write for us. This means that I spend a considerable amount of time, well, googling people essentially. I have no idea how on earth this sort of work was conducted in the days before the internet and faculty profile pages.

The thing with googling people is that you often turn up relevant results other then faculty pages or personal websites. Things like mentions of the person in question on blogs, news websites, bookstores, etc. You often find yourself getting odd glimpses of people's personal lives through these little details, funny little personal pursuits or interests, relationships and collaborations with other names you know. It can be very interesting, and sometimes a little odd.

Today, for example, I was looking for the email address of an academic who has become estranged from a project without handing over the text. I found their faculty page fairly quickly, which contained all the information I needed. I also turned up a news story, which was mostly about their other half, but mentioned the writer's name in passing as well. It's not significant what the story was about, but it contained a link to the personal website of his wife, whom they mentioned in an earlier email (they work in the same industry). I saw that she attended the same university BA program as him, at the same time, that they shared a lot of academic interests, and, oddly, that they apparently live on opposite sides of the country. One of them in Buffalo, NY, the other in Irvine, CA.

A curious situation, but alas, one doomed to remain so. There is no further information to be had, and I'm not going to ask a writer intrusive questions about their personal life. This got me thinking about how the information acquired from google searches seems to be generally inadmissible in social situations. Despite the fact that this information is all stuff that people have voluntarily placed in the public domain, admitting to a person that you have looked for it makes you instantly weird.

I think one of the aspects of the internet that people don't think of is that with google, all information is interconnected. Someone can volunteer information about their career to a person they are working with, a brief mention of their personal life can come up in a blog post, and their other half can have a profile page which gives his contact details. That all of these pieces of information are online would not be considered creepy by the person I'm working with. If I were to connect all the information I've gathered from ten minutes of reading, however, and use it -- by, say, emailing his wife asking her to tell him to check his damn email once in a while -- it would be a considered a creepy invasion of privacy.

I think I should make that a personal rule to not use internet searches to create the impression that you are omniscient, or that you can read minds.