(Some) Basic Internet Safety

Snake warning sign
Matt Frederick / Foter

Oh, the Internet. A wonderful place to play, a great boon to a writer. Full of kittens and rainbows and Neil Patrick Harris.

It’s also full of things that bite. And I see a lot of writers, new, wannabe, and professional, who don’t take some elementary precautions when playing. So here’s five things I wish I could tell every writer playing on the Internet:

1. GET A PO BOX. No, seriously. Do it, and use it for things like DMCA notices, fan mail, return address when replying to fan mail, return address when sending swag out, etc. Yes, I know going in to check a PO box is a hassle. It’s better than some asshole epirate posting your home address and inviting people to come visit you (this HAS actually happened, folks), or a stalker showing up at your front door. Nobody can live truly anonymously, but you can make it a little harder for the jerks and dipwads of the world to spread your personal information all over the Internet. Plus, having a PO box–or if you don’t want one of those, many mail places have boxes that look like actual street addresses–can give you a few seconds’ worth of critical distance when receiving nasty letters or even bad news. Stalkers, unhappy news, angry letters, or nastiness doesn’t have to come directly to your doorstep. Plus, as a business expense, it’s tax deductible. BOOYEAH, double win.

2. THINK BEFORE YOU POST A PIC. When I worked for a bank (long story) one of the things we were told in training was not to have pictures of friends or family at our desks/stations. Taking a risk that someone will know what your kids/significant other/spouse looks like was a Bad Idea. I found this idea so compelling that I’ve held to it the entire time I’ve been on the Internet. It’s not just that my kids need their privacy (and stalkers, my sister’s stalker among them, do NOT need to know certain things)–but also, you won’t see pics identifying the front of my house, you won’t see my running routes even though ZombiesRun and the other app I use to track my mileage has that functionality. My friends (and Code Boy) have pseudonyms I don’t breach unless they’re “public” people in their own right, and I don’t link to their private journals or web presences. Is this a pain? Yes, sometimes. Is it perhaps overprotective and too cautious? Maybe. But I would rather have this caution and not need it than the other way ’round. When I see people posting pictures of their kids or loved ones online, I feel a tickle of worry, especially if that person has any sort of public presence–and for a writer, your blog/Facebook/Twitter IS a public presence.

3. DECIDE HOW OPEN YOU WANT THAT KIMONO. If you plan on being a published or self-published author, your web presence will be about access and connection your fans want to and from you. It does involve sharing a certain degree of your life, your views, your personality, your time and energy. Decide how open you want to be, and err on the side of safety. As my writing partner always says, you can always decide to open the kimono a little further and let people take a peek…but once they’ve seen, they don’t unsee. The Internet itself never unsees. (Don’t believe me? Just look at the Wayback Machine…) Spend some time lurking around Fandom Wank to get an idea of the repeating cycle of Internet shitstorm, and look at authors behaving badly so you have an idea of what not to do. At one point or another, your Internet career will hold a fuckup or two. If you can’t always act classy, apologize and shut up as soon as you realize you’re being unclassy, and move on.

4. SEX, POLITICS, RELIGION, AND BREAKUPS. These are juicy things to talk about, and you shouldn’t hold back. You should, however, be prepared for flames, trolls, wank, People Being Wrong On The Internet. Assess your comfort level, do it honestly, and always err on the side of cautious to begin with; you can always loosen up and take risks later. Do you really want to talk about your divorce? I didn’t until it was all over and finalized, for a variety of reasons. Do you really want to talk about a chronic illness or sexual dysfunction/experience? You don’t have to censor yourself, and the Internet is great for support groups and supportiveness, but I heartily advise spending 24hrs at least after you’ve written a possibly-emotional post about it to think about if it’s something you want out there on servers not under your control. (Because, you know, the servers that power this whole Internet thing ARE NOT under your control. Just think about that for a minute or two.) I talk about my politics, and I get flak for it. I talk about sex and religion, and I get flak. Most of the time the proportion of flak to reasoned, supportive, or thoughtful dialogue is pretty low, but the exceptions to that rule can be a doozy. Be prepared for that. Which leads us to:

5. GET A COMMENT POLICY BEFORE YOU NEED IT. I suggest some variation of John Scalzi’s. Figure out your moderation policy before you have a single comment. You can always alter it, true. And some sites have mod policies that make them rank and foul with abuse. If you’re paying for site hosting, you don’t have to take any shit from anyone, but you also won’t get a lot of people stopping by if you are a total comment autocrat who only wants yes-men and toelickers. (Or, you know, you might, but sooner or later your site and fanbase will implode. Long-term, it’s just not an incredibly viable strategy, despite what Certain People seem to think. Snork.) If your author platform is through LJ or something similar, you can block and ban, you know. It’s your prerogative. Once you do it, though, stick to it. Don’t block and unblock as if you’re a dippy tweener deciding who to unfriend. Be a big girl/boy about it, make the cut, and don’t go looking for the person you blocked or banned so you can see just how broken up they are about you not paying attention.

I could add a lot more, but there’s a lot of work to get done today. Do Mama Lili proud, chickadees, and play safely around those poisonous things.

Over and out.

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martianmooncrab
martianmooncrab

very true words. Being paranoid is very helpful too.

cheryl
cheryl

I was thinking about this issue recently and was wondering if it might be worth it to use a pen name. The sad truth is, it’s tough for *anyone* to keep themselves anonymous, thanks to the “people finder” websites that scrape the ‘net and compile public records. (I googled myself last week and saw that these lovely sites had my addresses going back 15 years. I’ve gotten my profile removed from a few, but I think it’s a losing battle — too many sites, plus the public records are still there to be harvested again.) I realize even a pen… Read more »

Wolf Lahti
Wolf Lahti

How can you expect to grow your following if you insist on being so reasonable?

Stan
Stan

I helped one of your fellow authors. She’d put up a nice website, was justifiably cautious about her personal details, but didn’t know about domain privacy. Yep, there in full color at the whois.domaintools.com site was her street address. Oops. Now she has the privacy turned on, for $25USD/year or so. Thankfully the Wayback Machine doesn’t archive whois details. Stalkers are real. As a guy, I’ve had a few myself just in the last 2 years, partly because I surf the ‘horror’ and ‘supernatural romance’ aisles at the bookstores, and some women are REALLY curious about a *man* being there,… Read more »