But there's a dark side of being able to reach so many people, and that is that if you screw up, there are no take-backs.
A lot of people believe that as long as you use adequate security on your Facebook and in other forums, nobody will ever know if you post drunk photos, bash an agent, or snap back at someone who gives you a rotten review or disapproves of your latest blog post.
Don’t count on it.
When I was in the eighth grade, I had two different classes in the same room. I liked one of the teachers and couldn’t stand the other. The one I couldn’t stand always stole the chalk out of the room, leaving the teacher I liked searching for something to write with. One day, this teacher got smart and hid most of the chalk so Ms. Unpleasant couldn’t take it. I thought this was hilarious, so I wrote a note to my best friend and told her what Ms. Likeable had done. I handed it to her at the beginning of Ms. Unpleasant’s class, warning her not to read it during class. Of course, she waited until class started to open it up, Ms. Unpleasant took it away, and I ended up in the principal’s office. (Which, in retrospect, was kind of silly, since I hadn’t actually taken any chalk or opened any notes in class.)
What did I learn that day? I learned never to put anything in writing that I didn’t want anyone and everyone to see. Because it will end up in the hands of the person you least want to see it.
This is a particularly important lesson in today’s digital world, where nothing online ever really goes away. Here’s why:
1. The internet caches things. That means that digital backups are constantly being made of everything online. Even if a picture, blog, review, or site is taken down, it may still show up in searches and cached versions of the removed information for years afterward.
2. People can save what you posted and re-post it. (And if a mistake goes viral...) A popular psychology blog had a major mishap when a blogger posted racist, sexist information (that had no scientific basis whatsoever) under the guise of science. Though the site quickly removed the post, people had made copies, which were posted on hundreds of other blogs and websites. It’s still easy to find copies of the post.
Now, you may think that creating a different user handle or email address will keep the material from being tracked back to you, but if you use your “secret” handle very much, sooner or later a) you will slip up and reveal something that can be tracked back to you (trust me on this one) or b) someone with some tech skills will just figure it out. (When you do things online, even anonymously, even on an internet connection that doesn’t belong to you, you often leave behind an invisible fingerprint called an IP address, which is unique to your computer.)
This may all sound kind of crazy, but I have had writers friend me on social networks and then do things they probably have no idea are massive turn-offs to others. These include the obvious posting inappropriate pictures and status updates (ie things that involve drugs, drunkenness, and other debauchery), judgmental or otherwise biased political or religious statements (just because your friends all agree with your ideals doesn’t mean the world at large does), and images--even joking ones--that are bigoted in some way. (I’m sure someone, somewhere has posted a list of the most annoying writerly Facebook habits, which have to include things like enthusiastically reporting on every word you’ve written [those with writer’s block will hate you], using bad grammar [not a promising start to any writing career], complaining about agent rejections [nobody wants to represent a public complainer], and those who quote their own novels completely out of context [we don’t understand obscure references from your stories any more than we do obscure references to your life, and they do not intrigue]. Oh, and while I’m at it – Socialcam is a very bad idea, and so are apps that report on every news article you read. [Link NSFW])
Now granted, not everyone is going to like everything you do, and from time to time we all cringe a bit at our judgment, but with a little foresight, you can avoid egregious online snafus!
If you have a great internet "don't" for other writers, share it in the comments!
Carolyn Kaufman, PsyD's book, THE WRITER'S GUIDE TO PSYCHOLOGY: How to Write Accurately About Psychological Disorders, Clinical Treatment, and Human Behavior helps writers avoid common misconceptions and inaccuracies and "get the psych right" in their stories. You can learn more about The Writer's Guide to Psychology, check out Dr. K's blog on Psychology Today, or follow her on Facebook or Google+!