My dad doesn't own a computer. Facebook is a meaningless term to him. So when he read in the local paper about a young woman who stole the two week old baby of a "Facebook friend," he wanted to know what that meant - and how it could happen. My explanations were pretty unsatisfying - try explaining social networks to an elderly person whose only knowledge of the internet is that when he can't remember something, he can call one of his grandchildren and tell them to "hit the google" to look it up.
What he couldn't understand was something most of us take for granted these days: the constant, daily intrusions into our privacy and the privacy of others that don't reach the level of baby-stealing or even identity-theft.
As many of you know, I tend to be very careful about protecting the privacy of anyone I write about - not just in this blog, but in everything I write. Some of you have complained that you find it distracting when I say that I've changed names and identifying information, but I do it because I believe that privacy is extremely important to our psychological well-being. Finding boundaries that are strong enough to protect us but flexible enough to allow us healthy connections to others is key to psychological and emotional health (I wrote about this in an earlier post, from a different perspective). But it's not always easy to figure out just what is and isn't a healthy boundary.
Here's an example of one of the subtle ways these things can impact us:
Macie* and Sam* had just had their first date, arranged by some friends at work. They liked each other enough to go out again, but Sam had been badly burned by a previous girlfriend and was not going to move into a new relationship without making very sure that it was safe.
A "good" friend thought it would help Sam to know more about this potential girlfriend, so she emailed another mutual friend and asked her what she knew about Macie. That friend said that Macie had struggled with an eating disorder. Sam's previous girlfriend had had an eating disorder, and although Sam knew nothing about Macie's experience, he decided not to pursue the relationship, because he was afraid that it was sign that Macie and he would have the same problems that he had had in his previous relationship.
In fact, Macie had done a great deal of psychological work and was no longer struggling with the issues that had led to the eating disorder; but Sam, of course, had no way of knowing that. When he did not call again, Macie had no way of knowing that his friend's boundary-breaking had been the cause. She thought she must have done something wrong, and wondered how she could possibly have felt so good about a date which had obviously been so bad for Sam.
Now I'm not saying that the internet is all-bad. Without it, we wouldn't have this blog site, of course, or many of the other very positive things it brings us. In fact, the internet and social networking may have had a hand in getting the Florida baby safely back to its mother within a few short hours. In many cases, the boundary-crossing is done innocently or even unintentionally. But it can still have serious fall out.
We all know that there's much more about us on the internet than we really want the general public to know. Here are a couple of sites that offer helpful information about protecting your privacy: http://www.thedailybeast.com/newsweek/2010/10/22/10-ways-to-protect-your-privacy-online.html
There are plenty of others that you can find, to quote my dad, by "hitting the google" (but of course, the irony is that you also need to be very careful about even those sites!)
But the real question is: what does all of this searching get us? Knowing things about another person that they haven't told us themselves (often things they would tell us when they got to know us better and felt safe with us) can interrupt the natural flow of a developing relationship. It almost never actually helps; and it can, as in the case of Macie and Sam, stop the process altogether. What it does do is gives the "knower" a false sense of power and control. Genuine strength does not come from having secret power over another person; and real control in a relationship comes from discussions in which negotiation and mutual consent are key.
So what's missing from internet information? The real relationship. Confusing, difficult, exciting, and personal as any relationship can be. None of that's really there online.
A year or so after they had first gone out, Macie ran into Sam at a party. She was feeling particularly self-confident that night, having recently been promoted at work and now in a relationship with a caring, generous man. So after chatting with him for a little while, she got up the courage to ask Sam what had happened on that first date to make him back off. "I've just always wondered what I did wrong," she said.
When he told her that he had just worried that she was too much like his old girlfriend, she asked what had made him think that. "Well, you know, she had an eating disorder..."
Macie was stunned, since she knew she hadn't said anything about it to him that night. He confessed what had happened, and she laughed. "Well, that's a relief," she said.
She thought, but didn't say, that she was glad that they had not kept going out, since in her opinion that was a really dumb way to make a judgment about another person. What she did say was, "Why didn't you just ask me about it?" but he said he'd figured it would be too uncomfortable for her to talk about. She replied that it would have been better than not knowing what had happened and thinking that she had done something wrong, and he nodded. Then she said, "You know, I wonder if you should think about going out with that friend." Sam, who wasn't dating anyone, asked her why. "Well," said Macie, "she obviously didn't want you to go out with me! Maybe she wanted to go out with you herself."
Sam asked if they could start over again. Macie said she was happily involved with someone else. But she added that even if she wasn't seeing another guy, she wasn't sure she could go out with him again. She liked him, but she worried that she couldn't trust him. "Not that you're a serial killer," she said, "but I think it's really important to talk about things with someone you're involved with. And based on what happened, I'm not sure I could trust you to do that."
*names and personal information changed to protect privacy