“Anything you put on the internet you lose control over,” says author Evan Carroll, author of the book Your Digital Afterlife.
I came across this quote while reading the story of a reporter who posted a cute, innocent video of her daughter on Facebook only to have it go viral and become a nightmare. People were questioning her parenting skills and her lifestyle choices. It was Internet bullying at its finest.
Ultimately she decided to do a story on the experience and the experts pointed out to her that once content is on the Internet, you have no control over what becomes of it and, furthermore, it will be out there in some form forever. (Meaning, in her case, that this video would be embarrassing this kid every time anyone Googled her name. Thank heavens I grew up pre-Internet. The idea of potential boyfriends or employers seeing my childhood videos is embarrassing.)
While this story was meant to be a warning to parents, there is a warning in here for authors and writers, as well.
As writers, whether novelists or freelancers, we are encouraged (and practically required) to “put ourselves out there.” We’re encouraged to build our platforms, blog, and engage on social media. We’re encouraged to show our humanity and be a little bit vulnerable. That’s all well and good, but you must be almost hyper-vigilant about what you post because, as the reporter found out, everything you post is out there forever and you have no control over any of it.
Thanks to the magic of caching, screen shots, and sharing, nothing is ever truly deleted and you will have no control over where it goes or who sees it. Worse, it only takes one thoughtless post to damage your credibility, embarrass someone you love, or open yourself up to attacks.
There are so many angles of concern for a writer (or anyone, really). Just a few off the top of my head:
- You don’t want to post something that will alienate future employers, publishers or agents.
- You don’t want to post anything that will open you up to identity theft, robbery, or stalking.
- You don’t want to upset your readers.
- You don’t want to post anything that will expose your children or spouse/partner in ways that are upsetting or embarrassing.
- You don’t want to post anything that will make it possible to discriminate against you (think things like health information that would make a potential client/employer think twice about hiring you).
- You don’t want to post anything that you hope to monetize because once it’s available for free, you’ll have a hard time selling it.
So what’s a writer to do, then? How should we conduct ourselves on the Internet to keep it from biting us in the backside later? Some ideas:
Keep it professional. One way to stop a lot of potential problems before they begin is to keep your postings to the realm of the professional, only. Don’t post videos of or discuss your kids. (No one needs to know how potty training is going. Trust me.) Don’t talk about date night with your husband. Don’t talk about your health, finances, or family issues. (The only exception is if this information somehow relates to your work, e.g., you’re a breast cancer survivor writing about that experience or advocating for others.) If you must post personal information, do so on separate, personal accounts that are locked down so that only friends and family can see them. Otherwise, post only things that relate to your work.
Eliminate identifying information. If you post a photo of your writing space, make sure that bills, mail, and anything else with personal information (address, bank account information, personal photos you don’t want others to see, etc. ) is out of the picture. Same with pictures of manuscripts (don’t show the cover page with your address information on it), or pictures taken around your neighborhood (make sure your street sign or house number is out of the picture). Similarly, don’t post much more information than your state/country when listing where you’re from and don’t post or use your real birth date on social media sites.
Don’t post your whereabouts. It’s fine to post some generic information about your fabulous vacation, conference, or research trip, but do it after you’re home. Don’t let thieves know that you’re away from home, or reveal to stalkers where you can currently be found. Similarly, turn off locations in photo services.
Novelists and non-fiction book writers have a particular conundrum with this because we often have to go out to promote our work and we want people to come visit with us. It’s difficult to balance the security of our homes and persons with the need and desire to connect with our readers.
My advice is this: You can’t totally eliminate your event schedule from your posts, so take other precautions if you’re worried. Don’t go to events alone. Take someone with you so that you aren’t alone in parking lots or hotel rooms (this is particularly true for women). Take another writer, a friend, or a partner. And don’t leave your home unattended while you’re away. Get a house-sitter, or invite friends or family to stay while you’re away. At the very least, let a trusted neighbor know that you’re leaving so they can keep an eye on things. Or invest in a security system.
Don’t disparage clients or others you work with. We all get angry sometimes, but don’t vent your spleen on the Internet. If you must do so, at least don’t name names and try to frame your concerns as constructive instead of cruel.
Don’t reveal secrets. In the course of your work, you may be privy to information or proprietary secrets that your employers don’t want revealed. Keep your mouth shut. It’s tempting to just post that one tweet saying, “Ooh. Saw the new product from Company X today! It’s so awesome!” but if that information wasn’t yours to reveal, you could be in trouble. Similarly, don’t post about any deals you may reach with publishers or agents until everything is finalized (and even then, don’t post the ugly details of how much money you received, or other terms of the deal).
Stay out of controversy. Don’t post anything about religion, politics, your take on current events, or gossip. While some of your followers may share your opinions, many may not. You don’t want to alienate anyone by criticizing their religion or politics. Yes, it’s tempting to join in on hot topic conversations, but in most cases it’s a bad idea. At best you alienate people who don’t agree with you. At worst, you come across as an argumentative, intolerant jackass.
Don’t post work you hope to monetize. If you post a story/article on Wattpad or your blog, be sure you’re okay with not getting paid for it. Many publishers and agents won’t take on anything that’s already “out there” because why would anyone pay for something they can get for free? And remember: Even if you remove the free version, it’s still out there in caches, screenshots, and emails. Only post things already published, or which were written specifically as freebies.
Don’t post anything you wouldn’t want your mother to see. If you’re thinking of posting anything risque or off-color, ask yourself if you would mind if your mother saw it. That’s generally a good way to stop yourself from posting things that others are going to find offensive or disturbing.
Follow the Golden Rule. Post about others as you would want them to post about you. That will solve a lot of problems before they even get started.
This may all seem like common sense, but I see so many authors and writers posting things that are either cringe-worthy (and thus contribute to a negative impression) or downright dangerous from a personal security standpoint. There are plenty of ways to engage readers without putting your reputation and safety at risk. Just stop and think before you post.
(Photos courtesy of geralt)