A few years ago, I was working at an SEO agency where my job was, in essence, to rig Google. Businesses employed us to get their brand higher and higher up the Google search rankings, hoping it would increase their customer base. One day, however, someone didn’t want to get on page one of Google’s search results – they wanted to get off it.
The person in question had run a shady business that was dogged by terrible reviews and, knowing that it would be too much work to remove the negative comments, they instead wanted us to drown them out. Make their name fall off the first page and hence into virtual non-existence. I thought, at the time, that this person was being overdramatic and a little nutty. Now, I think they were eminently sensible.
For better or for worse, we are in a world where Google search rankings are judge, jury and executioner. If you do or say something you’re not proud of and it’s in the public forum, it’s there for ever. Maybe that explains, then, the rising trend in dating culture to not share your last name with the person you’re seeing. In The Wall Street Journal, Nicole Hong reported that 2018's daters are reluctant to share this detail until the relationship has become more serious. A Reddit thread agonises over the subject, with commenters sharing tips on how to ascertain someone’s last name: look at their doorbell! Check their credit card!
I’m conflicted about how to feel about this one. On the one hand, if the person you’re dating has been accused or convicted of sexual assault or misconduct, it is absolutely vital that you know this information as early into dating someone as possible. Likewise, if your date is a regular commenter on Breitbart, has a YouTube account about who “REALLY” built the pyramids or uses his Twitter account to harass Mary Beard, knowing his full name might mean you get that intel sooner rather than later. Yes, many people use aliases online, but a frightening number of them are harassing historians under their own name, with no regard for the fallout.
By date two, it’s usually pretty clear whether you’re an arsehole or not, regardless of your name
But then there’s the other side. A romance world governed by dating apps means that the sense of mystery that used to fuel our crushes – what are they thinking, what are they doing, where are they right now? – has been lost to a world of Instagram stories and grainy pictures taken in front of someone’s unmade bed. I know where he is: he’s at Subway, getting a meatball marinara. He knows where I am: on deadline and complaining about it on Twitter. Be still, my beating heart.
Mystery, to my mum’s generation, meant that you only shaved your legs when your husband was out of the house and you never left your minging pants drying on the radiator. Mystery, to my generation, means withholding your very identity so that your potential partner doesn’t need to find that blog you wrote about thrush. Maybe that’s why it’s considered rude to ask for someone’s last name and why not googling someone was called “the new abstinence” by Maureen O’Connor in 2014.
Then there’s the fact that the eternal judge of Google means that vulnerable people can spend their entire lives being followed around by something they are trying to desperately leave behind them – women who are stalked by the shadow of revenge porn, or even someone who wrote a “I LOVE WOODY ALLEN” blog at 21 that they would rather not have as their first search result now. Then there are the small, sensitive subjects – maybe you wrote something about your ex. Maybe you wrote something about your mum dying. Maybe there is a long list of incredibly fragile topics that you, at some point in your life, disclosed to the internet and would now rather a) not discuss or b) bring up with a potential partner when the time is right. The simple act of googling someone’s full name means that you quickly enter a race to the bottom of who can dig up more dirt on the other person. Personally speaking, as someone who has been writing about my feelings on the internet for 10 years, the idea terrifies me.
I checked up, recently, on the person who paid all that money to have their negative business reviews disappear. They have a new business and it is equally plagued by negativity. They might have been able to temporarily outrun their shitty past, but their shitty selves continued to catch up with them. Maybe that’s the lesson here. You can hide and duck and dodge your history by withholding your last name. But eventually, everything catches up with you. And by date two, it’s usually pretty clear whether you’re an arsehole or not, regardless of your name.