Promotion versus privacy

The importance of online privacy is an emerging issue for the public at large, including writers, read more about why that is here. Recently Newsweek ran an article about American authors, including J.D. Salinger. A photo of the famously reclusive writer shows him in his bedroom. As the article points out, the viewer can’t help noticing the industrial-strength lock on his bedroom door. The image of the lock underscores the way Salinger guarded his privacy ferociously for nearly a half century.

I don’t know whether Salinger owned a computer (we’ll probably find out in the upcoming biography, The Private War of J. D. Salinger, by Shane Salerno and David Shields), nor do I know what he thought about the way most authors go the opposite way today. We typically court publicity (and sales) by using social networking, publicists, and other self-promotion strategies. But I’m sure he would have frowned on the loss of privacy that follows in the wake of becoming “known,” even to a small degree. Before their first published book hits the store shelves, authors are often advised by publishers: Get a web site; get on Facebook and Twitter; start a blog (The Kill Zone, by the way, is one byproduct of my being given that advice by my own editor).

What is the privacy downside of all this online activity during an age in which almost everyone has a “public” face? For children, the threat of Internet predators is an obvious concern. But what about the rest of us? I’ve had my own minor brush with the downside of posting too much information online. A few years ago, someone reached out to me via my web site’s email; we exchanged some pleasantries. Then, the day after Christmas, as my family gathered in the living room in the traditional post-holiday food coma, the doorbell rang. A messenger delivered a package–inside the box was a gigantic, framed portrait of me. It turns out that my “friend” had commissioned a painting based on a web photo of me, and had it delivered to my daughter’s house(!). As we put the thing on the couch and gaped at it in all its life-sized  glory, my brother-in-law said, “That’s just wrong.”

With that incident serving as an alarm bell, I started reducing my online footprint. I haven’t gotten to the point where I lock my Facebook and Twitter posts, but I’ve tried to raise my awareness of the unintentional information that can be mined from online activities. One thing I’m grateful for is that my pen name is different than my married name, so there’s a slight privacy firewall between my social and professional identities.

Whether you’re a writer or not, here are some things everyone should consider when posting online:

According to the NY Times, burglars have targeted houses based upon people’s Facebook updates.

When you upload a photo that was taken with a smart phone, people can determine your location. For a demonstration, see I Can Stalk U. (You can turn that GPS function off, but many people don’t know it’s there.) This one’s really scary to me. If you click on the “Map It” link, you can see where the people posting their Tweets work or live, and they probably have no idea.

Sometimes one social network can “out” your identity from its sister site without your knowing it. In one example, people who thought they were playing music privately online were actually broadcasting their musical selections to their entire network.  More here. So imagine if all your cool friends discovered that you actually listen to Neil Diamond. The horror!

The most recent privacy-scare story I heard came from one of my friends: He joined a service that was supposed to manage all his social networks from a single point of control. His wife was linked to it, and as soon as it was turned on, all his past Tweets, plus every message he’d ever posted to chat boards, started scrolling before her on the screen. These missives included several to women that she considered to be…questionable. The poor guy had to endure a lengthy, detailed grilling about each and every one of them. He never unsubscribed from something so fast, he said!

How about you? Have you had any funny, odd, or horrible stories related to online privacy? Is privacy a big concern of yours?

20 thoughts on “Promotion versus privacy

  1. I’m not overly concerned about privacy. I don’t post where I’m going because I don’t like the idea of someone using that post to know when I’ll be gone, but any criminal with half a brain would have a pretty good idea of when I’m gone anyway. There’re those people who are just a little too friendly. I wouldn’t want strange packages showing up at the house, but if someone really wanted to find me I’m sure I could be found easily enough whether I post stuff or not. It is public record that I bought a house. The risks increase with being better known, not by posting stuff online. As writers, if we want to sell books we have to be willing to take the risk.

  2. The primary one that comes to mind for me was a local guy who wanted signed copies of my books and I told him I’d be glad to bring them by his house or meet him somewhere, but he got very insistent about picking them up at my house. I was uneasy about it and chose a time when my wife and kids weren’t around and he turned out to be fine, just a pushy guy who thought he was making my life easier by picking them up, but it made me very wary.

    Not everybody understands when I say that I sort of admired JD Salinger’s approach to book promotion.

  3. I’ve been lucky so far. I am careful not to mention my kids names online or post family photos or to mention being on vacation until I am safely home. Some of the precautions you can take are just plain common sense. I figure if someone really wants to find out about me, they’re gonna do so. I did get a request from a fan once for me to sign some blank book plates he mailed to my po box. Leery of identity theft, I sent him some signed bookplates that I created with my book covers and signed bookmarks. I don’t need my free signature floating around there. I don’t send autographed photos either.

  4. I remain a confirmed self-tooter, John, despite privacy concerns, lol. Mark, I’m with you–I wouldn’t want someone meeting me at my house–too much of a security risk. Same goes for people picking things up from craigslist and ebay. Timothy, you have a good point. The one time I was the victim of real identity theft wasn’t due to online activities. Someone got hold of some of my old deposit slips, made deposits with bad checks, and then took a small amount of cash back each time. After I put an alert on my account, the woman (I’m assuming the perpetrator was a woman!) “took off running” according to my bank, when asked for ID. Nancy, no harm being on the wary side.

  5. Good on you for keeping your concerns private, Dana! Jordan, like any experience with being a crime victim, once stalked, always wary, I would think. I know I fell in love with my paper shredder after that identity theft incident.

  6. I used to worry about this stuff more than I do now. I take reasonable precautions, like always meeting fans at a public place, neither their home nor mine, but I think there comes a point where precaution becomes paranoia. From the very beginning, I’ve either dedicated books to my wife and son or I’ve certainly mentioned them in the acknowlegements. I made efforts to keep my home address private for a while, but there are so many ways around that on this here Internet that I stopped doing that, too.

    I think the rule of salvation in the era of social media is to control the message by not posting anything anywhere that is not something that you’re willing to be widely known. For me, the biggest conflict in the social media world is the space where Writer John and Big Boy Job John meet. The association I work for has recently entered the social media madness, and as a director and department head, I’m part of that mix; but my fairly well established footprint on Facebook and Linked-In, etc. is all about Writer John, and it’s self-defeating to have two profiles. Thus people who track me down for my expertise in occupational safety and health, will also learn that I write about killing people. No source of confusion there, eh?

    John Gilstrap

  7. I had that conflict too, John, when I was working as a technical editor. Except here’s where my pseudonym came in handy: Very few people knew my pen name, so I was able to keep my second “identity” fairly private. Kind of like being Spider Woman.

  8. I think it’s all about integrity.

    Someone who is honest should have no fear of their wife finding out about a questionable email. If that person is honest, he or she would never have sent it in the first place, etc. As the saying goes, ‘the truth will out’.

    Mind, integrity and honesty will only take you so far. They cannot take the place of simple protective acts like locking your doors at night, etc. You can be honest and still be stupid.

    BTW, the threat of Internet predators on children is overblown. This is a much rarer threat than most people are led to believe. Far, far more often it is a person known to the victim that visits a crime or threat upon them. And children are far, far more often kidnapped by a family member – especially an estranged parent without custody rights.

  9. Since you mentioned your personal life and your writing life are somewhat separated by your pen name, I have a follow-up question. I would *LOVE* for a full-blown post about this.

    What are the pros and cons of using a pen name versus one’s own legal name?

    I am at the point where I need to decide. I understand that a writer builds a platform based on their name so changing it later can be difficult. In this business, it’s all about name recognition.

  10. You’re wise to think about the pros and cons of using a pen name up front, Daniel. I’m not certain, but I think I’m the only one on TKZ who uses one, and I made that decision early on for privacy reasons. (To be honest, it was also because my married last name didn’t seem to “go” with the genre). Some writers use multiple pen names depending on the genre. And changing names is sometimes a strategy to keep previous poor book sales from “following” a writer to the next publisher (I don’t know if that strategy actually works). Clare had a post a while back about pen names. And maybe one of our other Killers will do a post on it later this week.

  11. Kathryn, thanks for the response. I have the reverse problem of you. My legal last name is “Smith” and my first name is “Daniel” so I’m concerned about being lost in the crowd.

    A quick Google search of “writer+smith” results in Douglas, Jim, Lee, Michael, Zadie, and Roland. I also don’t have the rights to which sells art supplies or, Attorney at Law. “Douglas” has

    My full legal name is somewhat rarer but I digress. Thanks for pointing me to that article. I loved it! I think the advice about taking a different name that’s close to the one I use now is my best bet.

    (Off to read up on J. A. Konrath’s name change…)

  12. I am very cautious about internet security and always wear dark glasses and a wig when surfing the web. Sometimes I put on a fake mustache or a removable Maori face tattoo as well.

    That way if anyone finds me they’ll run as fast as they can the other direction.

  13. It’s probably a bit late now to go for a disguise, but I try to keep my work life and private life reasonably separate. It’s certainly interesting how the world has changed.

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