Much has been made of the next generation’s expectation of privacy. If kids grow up putting their whole life on Facebook (or whatever comes next), if they record (and share!) everything with cellphone cameras, will privacy become meaningless?
For the rest of us, we often still struggle with maintaining a sense of privacy. Maybe we need the quiet of private, unshared thoughts to figure out who we are and what we want. Maybe we’re introverts who can feel like we’re giving away pieces of ourselves with public interactions. Or maybe we just like to control what leaves and enters our inner life.
Personally, I value privacy. I don’t share specifics about my family online, and I don’t post pictures of me at home or on vacation. So I get the desire to hold strangers at a distance for safety or privacy reasons. *smile*
Yet being a writer requires us to reveal ourselves to the public. In many ways, we are “public figures.”
Our stories often reveal deep truths about our worldview that we hold close to our heart. Our social media feeds will include our personal thoughts if we share more than just “buy my book” messages. Our email inboxes must be accessible to agents, editors, other writers, and readers/fans.
That means we have to find a balance between privacy and public sharing to be an author. We might all find a different line on that balance scale for where we feel comfortable, but sometimes a wrong choice might endanger us or our career.
So let’s take a look at some of the privacy issues we might run into in our writing life…
Real Name vs. Pen Name
There’s no “wrong” answer here. Some use pen names for marketing reasons (fitting in, obscuring gender, differentiating between genres). Some use pen names to stake out virtual real estate they can’t access with their overly common real name. And some writers have valid and important reasons for protecting their real name.
While using a pen name doesn’t provide the security of the Witness Protection Program, a pen name can add a layer of obfuscation so a random person can’t show up at an author’s front door (this really happened to an author I follow on Twitter) unless they’ve done research. That is, using a pen name requires a stalker to act like stalker rather than just having the information handed to them.
The more we want to share about ourselves online—personal pictures, kids’ names, specifics of where we live or work, etc.—the more important it might be to add protections in other ways.
However, for that layer of privacy to be effective, we’d have to be careful. Did we use our real name and address when purchasing our domain name? (That’s the www.something.com.) Domain registrations are public and easily accessible.
Did we start interacting in our writing life as our real name? When a friend changed from using her real name to a pen name, I took the time to update references here, but most places wouldn’t do that.
That’s why my recommendation has always been that before we start work on our platform (website, blog, social media, commenting on writing forums or sites, etc.), we should decide on our author name.
Real Picture vs. Fake Picture
Notice that I didn’t say “picture vs. non-personal image.” I understand the hesitancy in sharing our picture online. If we’re private, an image can feel very personal. So I don’t judge those who use a flower, celebrity, or cartoon likeness as social media avatars.
That said, there’s value in allowing people to see us as real. Book bloggers and reviewers are rightfully suspicious in dealing with new-to-them authors, and real pictures can tip the scales in earning trust among our connections.
But there’s a wrong way in trying to earn trust, and that’s by, well…not being trustworthy. That’s why, to me, there’s a huge difference between using a pen name and faking a whole persona.
As I stated in that above-linked post:
“In the case of a fake persona, who would I be trusting?:
The fake persona that doesn’t exist?
Or the person behind the persona who I know nothing about?
Um, no thanks. I’ll say neither.”
So I don’t trust those who use stock photos for their avatars. We all know a cartoon, or dog, or celebrity isn’t really what one of our connections looks like. Using one isn’t lying.
On the other hand, using a stock (or stolen) photo and pretending to be that person? That’s lying.
Just last week, I received a proposal for a guest post that I thought might be a good fit for my blog, but I wasn’t familiar with the author, so I searched her previous work. Oh look, a Google image search on her avatar at all those posts “she’d” bragged about proves she’s using a stock photo. *deletes email*
Yes, we all hide aspects of our life. It’s normal to not reveal our address, phone number, bank account number, etc. But hiding is different from lying and pretending to be someone else.
Besides, if we’re ever going to do book signings, visit reader events, or attend conferences, people are going to encounter the real us. Would we want our readers to not believe it’s really us in those situations?
Being Accessible vs. No Contact
There are many reasons why people might want to contact us in our writing life. An agent or editor might come across our writing and want to work with us. Reviewers or other authors might need to talk to us about business issues. Readers might want to send fan mail.
Yet I never cease to be amazed by writers who lock down their accounts and information so tightly that contact is impossible. I’ve even seen problems when the writers supposedly want to be contacted, all because they use screwy settings their email.
Kristine Kathryn Rusch has shared stories about existing editors and writing friends being unable to reach writers—even for issues where others are trying to give them money:
“Opportunities knock—when they can find the door.”
It’s far better to be accessible and potentially get a spam message here or there than to lock down methods of contacting us so much that we miss communications we want to receive.
Here are just some of the problems I’ve seen with attempting to connect with authors:
Every author’s website or blog should have a contact form, as that’s the default way for those potential agents, editors, or others to make contact. Contact forms are also a way to remain accessible without having to post our email address anywhere.
As recently as two years ago, about 50% of sites I visited didn’t have contact forms, and the percentages are improving too slowly. Also, when we upgrade the contact form software, we should make sure the form still works.
As email is our main form of contact, we need to be very careful about locking down our email too much. Spam-prevention technology can make mistakes and shouldn’t be trusted too far.
Many of my blog readers subscribe to receive my posts by email, so I see first-hand how email systems can screw up behind our back. Every day a post goes up, my inbox is flooded with “bounce notifications” from valid subscribers.
Now, I don’t pretend to think that the information I send out is life-or-death important. After all, I’m not sending out offers of representation or publishing contracts. *smile*
However, if I see messages bounce due to bad technology that should make it through my subscribers’ email systems, I wonder what other valid emails they might not be receiving.
- Example #1: Spam Detection based on Content
The technology often assumes that emails with multiple links are spam. (“This message looked like spam.”) I’ve had resource-filled blog posts and email replies with links to answer a reader’s questions all bounce.
- Example #2: Whitelists of “Approved” Senders
Most email systems maintain blacklists of known spammers, but whitelists accept messages only from “approved” email addresses. That means people contacting us out of the blue with offers of representation, publishing contracts, invitations to anthologies, etc. are rejected with a “This user only accepts email from approved senders” message.
Too often, writers with this setting forget they have it. I’ve received messages on my contact form asking for advice, and then my reply bounces because they forgot to add me to the approved list. *head desk*
Worse, this technology also suffers from tons of false negatives. Even if an email address is on a “safe” white list, the system’s filter will frequently refuse the email anyway (as I see when a newsletter makes it through some weeks and not others).
As I mentioned, I see issues with these two technologies every week. If you’re signed up to receive my blog posts by email and don’t receive an email from me every Tuesday and Thursday, chances are your email system is blocking emails without your knowledge.
While we might not care about missing a blog post, these issues are possibly affecting our ability to receive email from others too. And most likely we’d never hear about it, as the blocked senders couldn’t easily let us know.
I wouldn’t recommend using white lists at all—how can we know who might want to contact us? And spam-detection works best if the message is flagged for us to be aware but not blocked completely.
Some writers mark their account to private so no one can see their tweets and others require TrueTwit validation. Either way defeats the point of Twitter, which is to connect to others.
Similarly, I don’t accept friend requests from people who have a blank FB Timeline, often because they’ve set everything to Friends Only. If I can’t figure out from their profile why someone might want to friend me, I don’t accept the request.
As I mentioned at the beginning of the post, it’s understandable to want to maintain some sense of privacy despite the need to be a public figure. The trick is in finding the balance.
Some things we can hide: our real name (if we wish), our personal information (address, phone, etc.), our politics or religious beliefs, etc. Some things we may need to reveal gain others’ trust (real picture, some Facebook posts, etc.). And other things we must open ourselves up to in the course of conducting business (Twitter account, email and/or contact form).
The right choices can help us feel secure and safe, but the wrong choices could affect our career. Hopefully, these tips will help us find the right approach for our situation. *smile*
Do you worry about privacy online? Do you struggle with the privacy vs. public figure line? What choices have you made to maintain your privacy? Do you disagree with any of my perspectives? Have you seen other issues related to privacy in your life or in interacting with other writers?Pin It