Author Privacy and OverSharing: How Much Of You Is Enough?

 The Circle by Dave Eggers

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. 

This is TOTALLY not me. But she seems happy

This is TOTALLY not me. But she seems happy

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.

roadsign success dis way, failure dudder

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.

Open Your Eyes, JudgeSo, how much of themselves should an author put on the Internet?

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.

 

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  29 comments for “Author Privacy and OverSharing: How Much Of You Is Enough?

  1. June 26, 2014 at 3:55 pm

    Reblogged this on theowlladyblog.

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  2. June 26, 2014 at 3:56 pm

    Reading this made me realise I know very little about my favourite authors and I don’t feel I need to – I just enjoy their books. Having said that I did enjoy watching the episode of ‘Who do you think you are’ with JK Rowling a while ago.

    What is becoming the case though is that publishers expect writers to have a social media following and I’ve heard of authors who have been at the signing on the dotted line stage to be turned away as someone in the publishing house discovered they had no social media presence.

    It has to be done well though – I agree, there’s no point in telling people what I had for breakfast although I do occasionally share pictures when I bake but it’s about making more people aware of you and your work so you stand out a little. You’re also in control to an extent of what people find on google – this is particularly important if there is someone unsavoury on page one with the same name as you – you want to get them off page one and get yourself listed there 🙂

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    • June 26, 2014 at 4:24 pm

      You’re way ahead of most people on social media. I think you know better than most what interests prospective readers and what doesn’t, and that’s surely the skill we all need to develop. I never thought of the problem of someone having the same name as you and being up to no good! Imagine what you’d have to do to bump up your rankings if they were notorious – you’d have to start your own Ponzi scheme and get sent to prison or something!

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      • June 27, 2014 at 8:33 am

        It has happened – to a business person but she used social media well and got all her own name references onto page one. Also important if you have a popular name although I guess an author might use a pseudonym in that case
        I did read a while ago that having a blog can deliver more sales than a T.V appearance and while it is better if you can manage both, I would agree.

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        • June 27, 2014 at 9:23 am

          That’s a very interesting idea about the impact of a blog. I suppose people read blogs actively whereas they view TV more passively, particularly magazine programmes, where the content varies widely and the viewer doesn’t choose it. If you’re bothered enough to actually look up somebody’s blog in the first place, you’re half way there.

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          • June 27, 2014 at 9:41 am

            I’m going to write a post on it next week – give an update on sales figures and results from recent PR etc, one of the advantages of self publishing I guess, so much easier to track results

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  3. June 26, 2014 at 4:16 pm

    Great question, Tara! I think it depends on the reader and the writer. I know readers who want to know everything about their favorite authors (I’m personally not one of them) and writers who are happy to share anything and everything about themselves.

    I personally share very little about my husband and kids on my social media, and focus more on post that encourage people and things I like: music, movies, etc., and things about my books, characters, and writing experiences.

    I think each person needs to decide what they’re most comfortable with. If readers what to know more about you they’ll either look you up or ask. That’s my humble opinion.

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    • June 26, 2014 at 4:30 pm

      I often think I want to know nothing about my favourite authors, that if I knew I’d be disappointed! But the really successful ones become attractive in another sort of celebrity-driven way, don’t they? Maybe a lot of oversharing too comes from the fact that full-time writing is such a solitary and lonely job. Social media becomes the constant temptation. I have the benefit of not having 2 minutes to myself most days and so it rules out a lot of compulsive chattiness!

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  4. June 26, 2014 at 4:48 pm

    I – like you – have an unusual surname and so there’s no hiding from the stuff I put out there on the Internet. It does cause me to have various ‘cold sweat’ moments, but I figure I don’t name names of those close to me, there are precious few photographs (particularly of my loved ones) on sites accessible to the general public, and I don’t put up a huge amount of stuff that would enable people to track me down. Not that anyone would want to, I hope. The internet is wonderful and I’ve met so many amazing folks through it that I can’t regret being active on it, but sometimes I wish I didn’t feel the need to share quite so much. When it comes to writers I like, I’m a nosy git. I love to know as much as they’re willing to share! It’s also helped me to learn loads about social media, marketing and the internet in general, so that’s a plus.

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    • June 26, 2014 at 9:25 pm

      When I think of people like David Sedaris, who for me, writes his most beautiful, funny and heart-gripping stuff about his family, I think about how much worse off I would be if I’d never heard any of it because he was protecting their privacy! But still, for now at least, I wouldn’t dream about writing about my own family, and dragging them into my writing journey. It’s a toughie, isn’t it? It’s fine if you get it right, like Sedaris – but not if you don’t. And who’s going to tell you, until it’s out there?

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  5. June 26, 2014 at 9:42 pm

    An online ‘presence’ is very much a double-faced entity (as in the Jeckyll and Hyde variety), but for writers I think it’s probably a good thing on balance. This is from the perspective of being an indie author/publisher – because if I won’t publish me, maybe nobody else will… Bit the bullet and embrace it – the worse that can happen is that it sinks without trace, comment or reblurgitation (whatevs!).

    … but, but, but – social networking is sooooooooooo scary. My online ‘life’ began on pen and paper roleplay forums (a Lord of the Rings one – hardly a surprise to anyone who knows online me *[i]blushes[/i]*) where of course you can invent yourself several new personas for the characters you want to romp around in. This really helps with making new friends without any of the need for you to give away anything much about real ‘you’, because they’re not the real ‘them’ either. When you turn it on it’s head THEN it gets complicated, not only because of all the reasons above, but because you’re also out on a limb on how much of the true ‘you’ will hold ANY interest for anyone else…

    For anyone with an ounce of self-preservation (OK call it self-respect if your ego’s up to it! 😉 ) this is where being a writer does actually help a bit. In a word – EDIT! Edit yourself. Decide which bits of your life and work you want to air in public for whatever reason and FORGET about everything else. If you eventually have enough Followers, Likers or Tweetmates that you enjoy enough to share something personal and touching then all well and good, but FFS do it on Skype or PM or IM on a one to one basis unless it’s something that goes viral of its own accord (hopefully in a good way) – you know what they say about any publicity… 😀

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    • June 26, 2014 at 9:50 pm

      I LOVE that, Jan. “Edit yourself”. You should print it up on motivational posters and flog them from your blog, with the aid of a pleasing little story about, say, how outing your grandmother as the Machiavellian puppeteer of 7 European governments got you into huge trouble 😉

      Seriously, though – if I ever feel it’s necessary to post something personal for whatever reason, I will take “Edit yourself” as my mantra!

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  6. carolannwrites
    June 26, 2014 at 9:47 pm

    Yes, from now on I’m going to tell my millions of fans very little about myself! It seems they don’t need to know what time I went to the loo today in order to fully appreciate my literary genius! 😉
    In earnest though, I don’t know much about my favourite authors! And that’s okay!

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    • June 26, 2014 at 9:51 pm

      Yes indeed. I too like my authors served up with a dash of mystery and a side of enigma. Don’t tell your millions of fans that though!

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  7. June 26, 2014 at 10:54 pm

    I’ve been following various authors on various social media platforms for years now, and I normally really enjoy reading their combination of progress reports, thoughts on general topics in the field, and personal details.

    There are, of course, those whose openly expressed political views have turned me off their work – we could argue about whether I should read their books anyway, or whether I should have avoided their opinions and continued to enjoy their fiction, but it’s like eating my vegetables: sometimes I’ll do the right thing, sometimes I’ll push them to the side of my (reading) plate.

    The best advice that I’ve heard for authors’ online is to be prepared to stand behind what you have said, and if you change your mind, update your old entries to point to your new views on the matter.

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    • June 27, 2014 at 9:19 am

      It’s hard sometimes to separate the personality from the work, and that’s dangerous. I remember one lecturer in college needing about 5 lectures to drum it into our thick heads that the voice of a poem did not necessarily represent the poet’s own views. I don’t know why we couldn’t get it straight away, and I’d say it’s worse nowadays. We need some classy fake social media personae to teach us all a lesson I think!

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  8. June 30, 2014 at 9:48 am

    I think one of the problems with publicising yourself through social media is that it’s a different kind of publicity to the sort we’ve grown up with.We have become active publicity seekers. Rather than sit at home waiting to shut the door in a reporter’s face, we are putting out bacon rind for the blogging birds. Personal stuff is always interesting, so people who blog are therefore sometimes forced into this position of ‘if I tell people about this more people will read about me’ and then thinking, ‘eek, I shouldn’t have done that.’ But at the same time, how many people actually read our stuff? It’s telling that you can become a ‘grey thing’ and remain anonymous while your stuff goes viral. I had the same experience on a smaller scale. I wrote something nice about Mary Beard, and she and 191 of her Twitter followers came to read my post. Did any of them comment? Have any of them come back? Did any of them read any of my other stuff? No. They had no interest in me at all. I think our privacy is protected by the fact that we’re not so interesting as we’d like to think! Thanks for a really thought-provoking post.

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    • June 30, 2014 at 3:18 pm

      I agree that we’re not so interesting as we’d like to think! However there is a voracious appetite out there for the personal information of strangers.

      Sometimes it seems like the only way to effectively publicise a blog, or at least ramp up the hit count, is to write about something deeply personal – perhaps unpalatable and uncomfortable – whether you make light of it, or not. Then, of course, whether or not anyone comes back afterwards to see what else you’re up to… well, that’s something I can’t test, having not posted this sort of stuff. I don’t think I’d be willing to go through with it either in the interests of science!

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      • June 30, 2014 at 3:36 pm

        I think you might be right in the short term – the sensational always sells. The idea that you can see into someone’s private life is key, but it doesn’t necessarily have to be unpalatable/uncomfortable to appeal. What really grabs people is more the ability to identify with you. I read a post recently by someone who had breast cancer, and very few other people read it. But another blogger I know just writes about his daily life, and always gets a good audience. The most satisfying stories are about the human condition, not Superman struggling with a kryptonite hernia. Also, try this. My best hit count last month was a 66-word story. Dare you to write something shorter than that, and see what happens.

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        • June 30, 2014 at 3:55 pm

          Or…you could just lie. Now there’s a thought. Writer makes something up. Who knew? I’ve written fictional posts, and people (even though I said they were stories) believed them. Weird.

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          • June 30, 2014 at 4:15 pm

            A kryptonite hernia!! Hahahaha!! Do you know that’s particularly hilarious because my husband actually did have a kryptonite hernia last year… turned out to be bloody cancer, shocked the hell out of us. (He’s ok now. He also doesn’t read the comments on my blog so here I am, talking behind his back with impunity.)
            I like your take on people wanting to identify with you, to look at the human condition. If it’s written in an engaging manner too, obviously. There is still an audience out there for the raw – a lot of posts go viral in Ireland in particular when people talk about something particularly terrible, like suicidal feelings or depression. But that could be more of a reflection on the culture than the internet.

            As for a 65-word story, I’d love to take you up on the challenge, but I have to see when I have the 65 hours available to write something that short, first 😉

            I think it’s the small town girl in me that’s terrified of writing something fictional that everyone believes. I need to get over that. I wrote a story once when I was 13, about a girl whose best friend was a geranium (called Harry), and everyone in my school thought it was true. I was completely mortified. Nothing will tell you you’re not as funny as you think you are, as people believing what you say!

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            • June 30, 2014 at 4:22 pm

              yes, but if you opened a new blog, and wrote a fictional steamy account of being a nun/vicar by day and a prostitute by night, or having 10 children and battling cancer, or begging on the streets to fund your blogging addiction…or whatever, you could easily test your theory…without anyone twigging.

              Like

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