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Privacy, Integrity and the Internet

November 15, 2011

A lot of different things have me considering this topic about now. On a personal level, I was in my own email and I was reminded of how private things are NOT, online. You know how you get those annoying ads popping up alongside your email on the regular sites? I happened to look at the ads, which usually I just ignore. And then I looked again.

The top five ads were for “Publish your own book” (well, I was emailing publishers,) “Firefighting Careers” (my Samhain book has an ex-firefighter in it, and I’d commented to the editor about him,) “Building and remodeling your home” (the title is The Rebuilding Year although it has nothing to do with construction,) “Helping Hands charities” (I have a short story going to Featherweight for their Helping Hands line,) and “Meet hot guys” (um, wonder where that came from…) The scary part here is that with the exception of the publishers, all these things were in the bodies of my emails, not even the subject lines. Sure, it’s just some roboscavenger, picking up key words for targeted advertising. But it made me understand why my husband encrypts the grocery list when he sends it to me.

On a more general level, there has been more than enough said and written recently about author privacy. About the degree to which authors are entitled to keep their pen personae separate from their personal lives. The question of when misdirection becomes deception. And whether readers are owed anything more than a good book. There was the recent case of an author who received bad reviews on Amazon which also revealed his real name, linked to his pen name. That one’s headed to court. The unpleasant furor over the use of different-sex pen names has brought pain, and outing of sexual orientation, to more than one author.

The Internet is an odd place. It is at once intimate and anonymous. As never before, people meet, converse, share bonds and friendships, based only on what they choose to reveal about themselves. It can be wonderful. I am finding a community among other writers and the readers of my books that I have never known before. It can be horrible, as people caught in frauds and deceptions will attest. And finding the balance between trust and caution is damned hard.

Integrity is an old-fashioned word. It makes me think of my father, who never once lied to me in 46 years of my life, who swore only once in my presence (when I sank the sailboat,) and who would walk a mile to return excess change given him by an inept store clerk. If everyone out there was my father, we would all have just the joy of this new community.

But people are people. There are two new phishing attempts in my email spam bucket. There are strident voices all over clamoring for witch hunts of various kinds, basing judgments and accusations on the flimsiest of evidence. And the risks exist. Someone drew a cartoon of a collie typing on a keyboard, with the caption “On the Internet, no one knows you’re a dog.” Truth.

I write under a pen name. And the people with whom I converse online believe my stories of family and Minnesota mosquitoes and a little white dog based on nothing more than the hope that I am telling them the truth. And some of them send me their real emails and addresses, and trust that I will be careful with them. I’m honored and a little frightened by that evidence of trust.

I don’t have answers. I don’t even have good advice. I myself tend to trust as long as I can, (far longer than my computer-security husband would like.) But I’m in no position to judge others on their choices.

What I do have is a request, a plea if you will, for kindness and for integrity. For each of you to judge each other with as much mercy as you would wish to receive. For you to be as kind and supportive of those around you as it is in your nature to be. For you to allow those who want privacy to have it. And to deal with each other as honestly as you can. Even the little lies come back and bite us. “I’d rather not say” is an acceptable answer to an intrusive question. This ephemeral two-dimensional community brings people together as never before; let’s all try to make that a good thing.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. Christie permalink
    November 16, 2011 7:04 am

    I do research for a publishing company via the Internet on all sorts of topics and, thanks to cookies and roboscavengers (I love this word), I get the most peculiar ads, emails, and ‘recommendations’ sent to me. It’s like Amazon basing it’s purchasing recommendations on what you’ve looked at or bought–you know why it’s happening but it can also be so off-base it’s laughable.

    You can ‘report abuse’ for the the comments on Amazon but do they ever really do anything–like take the offending (deceptive, lying, etc.) comment down? I think ‘freedom of speech’ gets a bad rap on the web–oftentimes by those who toss around the phrase without having any idea what the Founding Fathers actually meant when they used it. Apparently there’s a great deal of freedom to be pond scum just because you can.

    I agree the privacy issue is a tangled situation. I’ve never signed up for Facebook, one reason being the privacy concerns that are only growing as they try to make money by linking your account to other search engines, etc. I’ve given away waaay too much personal info in the past although I’m not as naive anymore.

    You might have read about the whole Salman Rushdie debacle on Facebook. I didn’t know that you are supposed to sign up under your given name (in Rushdie’s case he was born Ahmed Salman Rushdie though he only uses Ahmed for official documents). He obviously wasn’t trying to be deceptive but, if you know, what do authors who use pen names do on Facebook? If I wanted to ‘like’ an author I would look under the name they write under, if it’s a pen name does it ‘link’ to a page? If the author chooses a pen name for personal or business reasons–and is not trying to be deceptive–why should anyone be allowed to ‘out’ their real identity.

    Unfortunately, ‘integrity’ is at a premium on the Internet. I know ethics and morality change with the times–and I’m certainly old enough to know that in some cases they’ve changed for the better–but it’s all too easy to let fools, bullies, and liars hide behind their own online anonymity to wreck havoc on others.

    • November 17, 2011 12:04 am

      I’m not on Facebook. As I understand it, authors can have a business-type site under their pen name but a personal one is supposed to be under their real name. I don’t have any great ambition to be out there in the social media so I don’t know the details, although I’m told it’s important marketing. Guess I’m not great at marketing. I’d check the pen name first.

      As someone who does use a pen name (because the erotic content of my writing does not go with my professional career) I don’t think readers have a right to know more than an author chooses to divulge. They are entitled to the best writing I can do, and that’s all. Outing someone has the potential to cause real harm. But deception comes in many shades, and the lines blur between fiction, dissimulation, and fraud. All I can do is hew the line of my own integrity as best I can.

      “Reputation is what other people know about you. Honor is what you know about yourself.”
      ― Lois McMaster Bujold, A Civil Campaign

      Integrity or honor is what counts. Thanks for commenting.

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