17 January 2008 | Tanya Goodin

the blog in which I discover what search engines are for…

Let’s re-cap shall we? I am the CEO of a search-led digital business. I have spent the past 13 years making a living out of search engines and, more recently, social media. So why do I find myself in the last week astounded and a bit perturbed by how well it all works….?

To backtrack a bit, my recent TV appearances prompted a plethora of strange individuals to contact me online. The first night the programme aired I was swamped with new facebook friend requests. Being the polite person that I am I dutifully clicked through to all the profiles trying to work out if I’d been to school with them, met them on holiday, had an ill-starred tryst that I’d wiped from my memory etc etc. After the 40th-odd request in an hour I’d given up and ignored them all. I’m old fashioned and have a rule that I actually have to have *met* my facebook friends – sorry 🙁

So when the programme was repeated I thought I knew what to expect. And was rather spooked to now get emails sent directly to me at work. And these ones were particularly startling in the level of information the senders had about me. University, past jobs, where I’d just travelled to, where I lived (not the street name but pretty close), my recent divorce, the number of children I have.

It was only when I got one email in particular (just a tip, probably best not to begin with “I’m not a crazed stalker but I’ve just done a Google search on you” – because it made me think that, yes, he was a stalker) that the penny dropped. All of this information about me is in the public domain and freely available via a simple Google search on my name. And because I’ve got an unusual name and am a member of several social networking sites, write this blog and have had press coverage, it’s easy to find rather a lot of it. So any half-decent stalker can piece together a pretty good picture of my life and work out things that I’d really rather not have strangers with stalking tendencies know.

But as the redoubtable Ann Widdecombe said on the same programme I appeared on “it’s not like they broke into your house and raided your desk. You put all the information out there”. Excellent point and I agreed with it when she made it. I was even accused of being a ‘stalker’ myself recently when I looked at someone’s facebook page and saw some things there they’d rather I hadn’t. And I indignantly made the same point, that they were publically available!

But having the tables turned was a strange experience I must say. I can’t really complain when it’s all information I’ve put out there can I? (Though I’m embarrassed to admit I went to one site and took out the dates I’d attended university as my gentleman stalker worked out my age – oh vanity!). I’m just not entirely sure I want everyone I ever come into contact with in any context in my life to be able to find out so much about me so easily.

I’ve written before about how this privacy obsession is probably a generational thing. The younger members of my team seem to have no issues with everyone they’ve ever met being their facebook or MySpace friends and having open access to the minutiae of their lives. Whereas I, and everyone else I know over the ages of (cough) 30 agonise endlessly about the various privacy settings available on their social media sites. When do you accept a friend in the first place and then move them from privacy setting ‘limited’ to ‘full’. After the second date? When you’ve slept with them? After a mini-break together? And what happens when you split up? De-friend them or merely demote them silently to ‘limited profile’? And if you get back together again, do you have to go through the whole cycle all over again?? It’s a minefield 😉

I recently decided I was being far too anal about all of this for my own good and relaxed the Alcatraz-like facebook privacy settings on my profile so members of the networks I belong to could at least see some of it. As the site itself says, this is what social media is all about. And the very next week I attracted my stalker who used some of this information together with the Google search to build up such an uncanily complete picture of me.

So, what have I learned?

1. Search engines work superbly well at gathering all the relevant information about you online and helpfully making it available to anyone who searches. Hurrah, a good business to be in then!

2. A huge amount of this information is stuff you’ve provided/published yourself so you can hardly cry ‘foul’ when it’s found.

3. Privacy in its old-fashioned definition is just that, old-fashioned. We’re in a truly connected world with its emphasis on information freely available and it’s impossible to avoid being sucked into it.

4. Sadly, it’s no longer possible to be an International Man (or Woman) of Mystery. If you’re lying about your age try not to helpfully fill in the correct years you attended university on networking sites so any idiot can work it out for themselves….

Here endeth the lesson.

Tanya Goodin

Tanya Goodin

Founder of Tamar