The Blind Date Meets the All-Seeing Internet

By Ellen McCarthy
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, October 11, 2009

Has it happened, finally? Has the Internet killed the blind date?

Given a first and last name, Google will often reveal where a person lives, how much they paid for their place, what they wrote in their last letter to the editor, possibly what kind of unsightly sandals they were photographed wearing at each stop on their last cross-country adventure.

And if their Facebook profile isn't private, as Jeanna Brown, a 25-year-old single woman from Mitchellville, knows, "you can find out a whole lot."

Web searches for background intel on prospective dates have been undertaken since the dawn of cyberspace, but only in the last few years -- with the advent of Twitter, Flickr, LinkedIn and the like -- have our online identities grown so rich that they routinely precede in-person introductions.

"First impressions have changed," says Dan Schawbel, a 26-year-old personal branding consultant. "For me a first impression could be a Google search, a search on Facebook or MySpace. . . . You can do research beforehand and know whether or not you want to go through with the date."

On more than one occasion, Brown has found out that men who represented themselves to be single were actually married, sometimes with children. The Web, she says, often reveals the discrepancy between "what they say they are and what they really are."

Nancianne Sterling, a 32-year-old Arlington woman who runs, a service that coaches clients through the Internet dating process, understands the temptation to scour the Web for information on a person in advance of a date with them. Before meeting her current boyfriend, she used to do it all the time, looking for résumés, school associations, blogs and anything else she could dig up.

But she advises clients to skip the preemptive search.

Scattered bits of online info color the way people look at their prospective dates -- and not usually in a good way, she says. "We make determinations about somebody, whereas if we met them and we liked them, it wouldn't be as big a deal."

In this region in particular she often hears from clients who found that a potential date donated to a candidate of a political party different from their own and then decided it was game over.

"People come up with all these reasons why somebody's not going to be good, before they meet them," she says. "It's almost like you're looking for quantitative information to make a decision without emotion -- and when you do that, you don't allow yourself to feel for that person in the way that you might've if you hadn't looked up any of the information."

Plus, she adds, it kills the fun and mystery inherent in allowing a person to reveal themselves organically over time.

That's not going to stop the author of DC Dating Adventures, a blog written by a 29-year-old District woman who asked that her name not be used because she blogs anonymously.

She once Googled the e-mail address of a guy who'd asked her out and found it registered on foot fetish message boards. A quick search saved her from having to find that out in person, she says.

And even as she uses the power of the Internet to research others, she's tried to reduce her own Web trail. She made her Facebook profile private, deleted her entire MySpace page and regularly Googles herself to make sure nothing strange comes up.

That, Schawbel insists, is something everyone should be doing. Like grooming before an actual date, he says, people should be aware of how they're presenting themselves online. "In person it's much easier to control the way you're perceived -- people can get to know your personality. The Web sort of lacks that," he says. "You need to put effort to the way you put stuff online."

Brown agrees. A Web presence might not be the full measure of a person, but what's up on a social networking site, she thinks, is "what you want to be seen. And if that's how you choose to represent yourself, then that's truly who you are."

And despite Sterling's entreaties, people like Brown aren't going to resist the urge to do a quick pre-date Google search. "Why not? If the information is available, you might as well take advantage of it," she says.

© 2009 The Washington Post Company