I’ve been reading one of the most thought-provoking books I’ve encountered in a very long time (it’s also brilliant, and called piteously to me each and every time I was forced to put it down, despite the fact that I felt like I was bashed over the head with one particular metaphor towards the end). It’s called The Circle, by Dave Eggers, and so many people discovered it before me it’s embarrassing. It was named the 2013 Book Of The Year by about 49,398 different publications and terrifically important opinion owners, but I’m only getting to it now.
Broadly, it’s about social media, and our lives on the Internet. More specifically, it’s about a woman who gets a job in the best social media company – probably the best company – in the world. It’s fiction, but it also totally isn’t; or at least, is close to being otherwise. Ever since I started reading it, I see its tentacles everywhere. Every newspaper article, comment, blog thought, and tweet brings me back to it and the basic question, which is: how much of our lives should be made available online? Some would say none. Some would say all. Either extreme seems impractical, if not undoable. But the fact that so much of it is out of our control is the scary thing.
Please Identify Yourself. In Triplicate
I’m also approaching my 1-year Blogiversary (I know, yay, etc) which has given me some cause to reflect. When I first decided to make a writing push, to come out from behind the desk, I did it tentatively. I started to use my Facebook account for the first time, even though I’d had one for years. I became properly active on Twitter. I joined Pinterest (although I’m still not sure why I did that). I set up a writer-ly Linkedin account. I became one of the few people I know on Google+, because someone told me I was supposed to. And I started this blog, lobbing my name out into cyberspace for real, to be associated with no less than the contents of my very own head.
At the time, I was terrified of what would happen if anyone from work found what I was up to online. Would they think that I wasn’t doing my job properly if I was going home from the office every day to write books? Would they be shocked? Would I suffer for it?
As it turns out, at work, they don’t really care. I’ve been in the same job for some time now and they know me, and they know my work. My writing side makes for a semi-interesting conversation over the lunch table from time to time but that’s about it. It’s the online side which has turned out to be more daunting.
Controlling the UncontTrollable
At first, I only used photographs of me from a distance, trying to keep a small bit of privacy, but then I got over my shyness, mainly because so much of me was out there already. I don’t blog about my personal life, unless it’s to do with something I love very, very much, like my pyjamas. I rarely if ever put personal stuff on Facebook either. But still, I’m out there. I’m readily identifiable. Someone can google me and find out a raft of information quite easily, aided by the fact that I have a relatively unusual surname.
All writers who are seeking readers – be it through traditional or self-publishing; looking for an agent or looking for a blog audience – are told they need an online presence. We’re told that most if not all agents, publishers and competition judges will ask Mr Google what sort of a creature you are. They want to see if you have a “platform”. They will also see what other people think of your platform: people you never met or interacted with. People you will never meet or interact with.
Surprisingly, my “Make-Yourself-Public” experience has been overwhelmingly positive. I have discovered talented bloggers who brighten my day with every word they write. I found a very special and supportive online community. I have been told nice things. I have been told off, too, but that’s okay, because it’s always been in response to some deliberately incendiary blog post title that I knew was going to make somebody growl (not least this one, and this one).
There have been telling experiences too. One of my Book Title Generators was shared on a popular meme site in the US. More people gave it a thumbs down than a thumbs-up, with both of these numbers well into the hundreds. I don’t mind whether they liked it or not, but nobody who voted or commented visited this blog. It crystallised my suspicion that when you’re out there, you can become a grey thing; a thing without depth or dimensions, which exists in one layer only to be opined upon. And this is before I’ve even tried to sell anybody anything.
None of this bothers me yet. But when my writing is launched out there eventually, I wonder if I will still not be bothered. I don’t know the answer to this. That bothers me.
Readers: think of your favourite writer. How much do you want to know about them? Do you want to know if they have dogs, children, or hay fever? Do you care about whether or not they’re married, work night shifts, or hate bean lasagnes? Do you want to know where they live? How much they earn?
And for the writers out there, when does it become over-sharing? When should things be kept private? What do you think readers really want to know? When is a thing important enough to know?
Answers to these questions, please, on a postcard, if the Internet scares you; or in the comments, if it doesn’t. And in the meantime, read The Circle. If you dare.