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The dos and don'ts of Googling people

Our Netiquette columnists say be wary of how you search for people on Google.
Our Netiquette columnists say be wary of how you search for people on Google.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • It's advantageous to know as much as you can about your co-workers
  • Do a quick search on any potential dates, but don't spoil the mystery
  • Google yourself early and often to prevent an identity crisis

Editor's note: Brenna Ehrlich and Andrea Bartz are the sarcastic brains behind humor blog and book "Stuff Hipsters Hate." Got a question about etiquette in the digital world? Contact them at netiquette@cnn.com.

(CNN) -- The other week, we covered the difference between searching and stalking online. We dusted off our hands, satisfied with our ample labors, and just as we were about to sink into the deep cave of hibernation/suspended animation that we enter between columns, we received the following inquiry:

"This has been a hard thing to admit myself, but I have a problem: I am a total and complete Google stalker. I'll spend hours just surfing the Web, searching for details about old high school acquaintances, co-workers and potential dates. I am a machine. Seriously. I can find anyone. Give me a first name and an identifying detail, and I'll give you a whole freaking dossier.

My friends make fun of me mercilessly, teasingly (I hope) calling me a creeper, and I've seen some sitcoms and movies lately that seem to indicate that Google stalking kills the mystery or whatever, but I'm just fascinated by people -- and the fact that our lives have become so public. (Also, sometimes stalking comes in handy -- a wedding ring can come off, you know). My question is: Am I really a creeper?"

- Creeper(?) in Connecticut

Well, Creeper(?), assuming -- as we did in the last column with Creepy Crushing in Chicago -- that you are not, in fact, out of your mind, allow us to parse this out for you by way of the following examples.

Is it creepy to Google stalk...

Work contacts

You've just been hired! (Finally, someone appreciates your amazing fortune cookie-writing skills.) You've just shaken hands with your new cubiclemate and you're settling into your computer chair when you're hit with the uncontrollable urge to enter her name into Google and hit "Search." Are you a creeper?

Nope. In the wild, wild west of fortune-cookie writing (and all other professions), it's advantageous to know as much as you can about the people you're working with. Does your colleague have a website? Does it have information about her past gigs? Does it include some hobby that you, too, enjoy (She does George R. R. Martin fan art, too?!)?

Well, then, feel free to cast around. No one is going to be creeped out that you looked at a repository of information that they themselves put online -- just do it at home (How will you feel if she walks by to invite you to lunch and sees you're six pages into her blog?), and bring it up tactfully: "Hey! I saw your website. What was it like working with Donald Lau? He's a legend!"

On the other hand, "I saw all those pics on Flickr where you're dressed as Lady Gaga, passed out on a couch. I love 'Born This Way,' too!" probably won't go over too well. As the cookie would say, "A wise man knows when to keep his mouth shut."

Your date

You're chilling at your local tiki-themed watering hole when a tall drink of grenadine saunters up to you. "My name is Jean Jameson," he says with a wink. "And I would love to take you out for a steak and my namesake sometime."

Coyly, you extract the plastic monkey from your Soft Breezes Spritzer and reply (after a lengthy chug of this, your fourth sugary, plastic-animal-laden cocktail), "Sure thing. Whisk me away, Whiskey Boy!"

The next morning, after copious glasses of water and capsules of headache medicine, you get a text confirming the date you agreed to in your sugared-up state. Through blurry eyes, you open up the Web browser on your mobile phone and start entering Jean's liquory last name. Are you a creeper?

Well, this is where things get dicey. It's totally fine to do an initial Google on someone you just met (especially somewhere like a bar or online) simply to make sure that s/he is, in fact, who they say they are. But once you've confirmed that JJ wasn't lying about being a deep sea pearl diver/living in Manhattan/his nonmarital status, you can click on out of that search box.

Any more digging and you're entering into CreepyVille -- and, as you worried in your question, "killing the mystery." JJ is in a band/writes epic poetry/had a LiveJournal when he was 13? Great. Let him play you a song/e-mail you his poetry/reveal to you his childhood obsession with Sarah Michelle Gellar of his own accord.

If he sucks at his hobbies (or had an unhealthy fascination with the destroyer of bloodsuckers), at least give him a chance to charm you before you can write him off without his knowledge.

Yourself

A recent study by the Pew Internet & American Life Project shows that 57% of adults have plunked their own names into search engines. Let's get that number up, shall we? Look, Googling yourself isn't vain -- it's smart.

A story: Back in 2009, American Girl put out a doll named Rebecca Rubin -- a young Jewish girl from New York's Lower East Side. At the time, one of these humble columnists was working at a Jewish culture magazine called Heeb, and decided to blog about the doll. A quick search for "Rebecca Rubin" unearthed an FBI wanted poster for Rebecca "Little Missy" Rubin, an allegedly armed fugitive.

The FBI was thrilled with the turn of events: "Any publicity that gets the word out that our Rebecca Rubin is wanted on various charges is certainly beneficial," Beth Anne Steele, a spokeswoman for the FBI, told The New York Times, but the doll now carries the name of a wanted criminal. A simple Google search by an American Girl employee could have waylaid that issue.

So what exactly are we babbling about? Nowadays, when anyone can and will search for you online -- you're not the only one, Creeper(?) -- your Google results are your calling card. Therefore, you should be aware of what comes up when someone enters your name into that magnifying glass-flanked box. Seriously.

You should even set up a Google Alert for your name. That way, the minute an article about a head-collecting serial killer who shares your name hits the Web, you'll know why that guy you met at that bar never called you.

(If the above situation does happen to befall you, we suggest buying the domain associated with your name and setting up a website -- complete with clear photos of yourself -- that explicates your profession and hobbies. Unless you are, in fact, a serial killer. Then the FBI will take care of that for you.)

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