Giles Coren is worried that his online reputation precedes him.
Douglas Coupland, the prophetic author most famous for such far-reaching coinages as ‘McJob’ and ‘Generation X’, was at Google’s terrifying Zeitgeist 15 conference the other day (Who are these people? Why do they run the world? Are they really going to replace us all with algorithms?) to deliver one of his most prescient observations in years.
‘It used to be that to google someone before a dinner party was stalking,’ he told the crowd of billionaire entrepreneurs, topflight coders and general international superdorks. ‘But now it’s kind of rude not to.’
And he’s absolutely right. My wife and I do not go to a lot of dinner parties these days (I used to think they had gone out of fashion – now I realise it’s just that we don’t get invited) but when we do, there is always a moment outside in the car, before we go in, when one of us says, ‘Hang on, who the hell ARE these people?’ and we whip out our phones and get down to research.
‘Okay,’ says Esther. ‘She’s head of media for some terrifying digital start-up, he was a musician, but now raises the kids. Quite handsome, actually. From the look of Wikipedia, I’d say don’t mention dalmatians, Coldplay or chlamydia.’
‘Got it,’ I say. ‘These other two look pretty terrible. He’s in commercial property, she’s Russian, 12 years younger and been married twice before. So gold-digger, I guess. Or she is genuinely hot for older, fatter, balder men. He is into speedboats…’
‘What a twat!’
‘…but don’t mention helicopters or Ukraine.’
And so in we go to the dinner, prepped and ready for anything. We’ve already taken the private piss, so we can be nice when we actually meet them. It’s all terribly modern, terribly convenient, and saves any embarrassment. Until you remember that… they’ve been googling YOU!
And in our case – especially mine – that is less good. I can just imagine the other couples looking us up as they arrive by cab:
‘These Corens are apparently both writers. She’s a redhead with an angry snarl, he looks small and sweaty.’
‘Never heard of them. What do they write?’
‘He’s mostly food…’
‘And she’s basically a gossip columnist, or was.’
‘What a cow!’
‘It gets worse. He’s some public schoolboy who only got his job because of his dad, writes a lot of books that nobody reads and won the Bad Sex Award in 2005. According to Wikipedia, he sends abusive emails to colleagues, breaks celebrity injunctions, has dismissed the whole Polish nation as anti-Semitic murderers and once threatened to kill a neighbour’s child.’
‘I don’t think we should even go in.’
‘Nor me. Let’s just go home.’
I am sure this has actually happened to me. At least twice in the last year I have been certain that late no-shows at a party were down to other guests googling me at the last minute and not wanting to meet me. And can you blame them? When you google my name every mistake I have ever made rises like scum to the surface – that’s just how the internet is.
The terrible thing about Douglas Coupland’s picture of modern life is it means a person like me can never have a second chance. Never reinvent himself for a party. Never be more than the sum of his previous bastardy. But I’ve had a lot of therapy since then (that’s on Google too) and I’m a great guy now. I could employ one of those firms to clean up my internet profile, but that seems like cheating. I guess I just need to go out and do enough good things in the future that the bad ones get knocked off the top page.
In the meantime, I suppose I’ll try to take pleasure in surprising people with how relatively nice I am, compared to what they just googled.
Assuming, of course, that they make it through the front door.