How to not be weird about finding someone’s online presence

Today a short post, because I’m feeling absolutely obliterated by this week of work.

So, you’re a parent, friend, teacher, whatever to a Certain Person, and one day while Googling online, or through the arcane workings of Whatsapp, you find the Internet Page of said Person. It could be a philosophical blog, a gawky vlog, a lewd Twitter… The important thing is, it’s something personal that you had no idea about. You get a little thrill of finding something out you “weren’t supposed to”, and maybe even a pang of hurt, because you feel like you know this Person so well that they should’ve told you about it.

Naturally, your first instinct is to: A) tell other people; B) tell the Person.

I cannot stress this enough: please do neither of these things. At least, not right away.

For some of us, private spaces on the Internet are crucial, whether that be for exploration of mental health issues, transness, sexuality, or political views. As someone with a checkered social past, every time my identity has been found out by a group or person I wasn’t expecting, it’s been hurtful and destabilising.

Thing is, if someone doesn’t tell you about their online identity, there’s a reason, and nine times out of ten, it’s that they don’t trust you enough. That’s not a personal affront, that’s just reality. Trust is hard won, and you’ll deplete whatever you have if you confront the Person about it inconsiderately.

As far as I’m concerned, there are two sensible plans of action:

  1. Pretend like it never happened. Close the page, don’t tell any friends, and resist the temptation to check it further. Don’t bring it up with the person and don’t change the way you act towards them. Accept their right to privacy and their freedom to explore identities which you are not privy to.
  2. Tell the person that you found the page, how you found it, how much of it you actually read, and whether you shared it with anyone. Ask them what they would like you to do: Would it be better to revert to option one and act like it never happened? Are there certain aspects of it that they’re comfortable talking about and others that aren’t? Is it OK to look at the page again in future, or should it be kept private?

It may not seem like that big a deal to you, but humans are fragile creatures. Don’t underestimate how damaging it could be to someone to find out their message in a bottle has been dredged up from the depths and read by the last person they wanted to.

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