Anonymity online is a hotly debated issue. Is it "wrong" to post anything anonymously because it means you aren't taking responsibility for your words? Or is it an acceptable way of communicating online? And when you work as a writer, is there anything you can do to protect your personal information, whether you choose to write anonymously or not?
This is an issue where I fall somewhere in the middle.
I think it's important in a professional sense to take credit for your words using the name you're known by in professional circles. That might be your legal name. Or it might be a pen name you've built your business on. I have no problems with pen names. I use several.
When it comes to more personal communication, I also don't see a problem with people posting completely anonymously under a handle if they feel more comfortable. I might look at the information they post a bit more critically, but it's their right to do so. And there can be good reason for it.
Online Stalking is a Real Problem
Let me share a story with you that explains why I think it's important people can choose to remain anonymous or at least find ways to protect their personal information.
Years ago I was a moderator for a very large online community. Quite a bit of business happened there between members. As a result, we routinely had to deal with things like shilling where a business owner would set up a second, fake, account to rave about their own products. This was against the rules for obvious reasons.
The policy at the time was basically to permanently ban the fake account and temporarily ban the person's primary account for breaking the rules. No big deal, right? Well, suddenly it was.
A guy was reported for doing this, and after investigating we decided to ban the fake account and his usual account. Rather than ride the temporary ban out, this guy went nuts.
I received a call one day on my home phone, which was an unlisted number. It was this guy who had just been banned from the site. He begged to have the account reinstated. I told him that wasn't possible and he'd just have to ride it out, and then he'd be welcome back, as per the community rules.
That's when he flipped. Suddenly he became aggressive, telling me that I was personally destroying his business, and that he would find a way to do the same to mine. He'd already gotten my unlisted phone number (I still don't know where he found it, but I suspect it was tied to an old domain in WHOIS records or something -- stupid on my part). He also pointed out that he knew my home address.
Thankfully nothing actually came of it. But I have to tell you, it was a scary conversation.
This wasn't even the worst situation like this I was in. Not long after that I had to deal with a stalker ex who was watching my every move online, using it to know when I was home (he'd show up and hang around outside), and constantly harassing me via email and instant messengers, no matter how many times I changed my contact information.
So I completely feel for people who have been in similar situations, or worse. And that's why I'm a big supporter of them having the right to remain anonymous online if they choose.
How Does This Affect Writers?
Writers expose themselves to others online all the time. Will most ever have a situation like those I mentioned above? Probably not. But it can happen.
An angry former client could hunt you down if you refused to "fix" something for the umpteenth time. Someone who disagreed with an opinion shared in one of your articles could start harassing you (I had a particularly nasty troll a few years back who made a point of following me around to every site I posted on just so they could bitch about every little thing I said). Or your public presence for your writing business could expose you to online stalkers of a more personal variety (like an abusive former spouse).
Now, I'm not saying that all writers should have a pen name or anything as extreme as that. But it can be a good way to protect your privacy.
My bigger concern stems from a conversation I had last week with another writer. She was worried about possible backlash and people finding out where she lived when she starts writing in a new specialty area -- politics. She didn't intend to write anything controversial. But, come on. When it comes to politics someone will always find something controversial about what you have to say.
Here are a few things I recommended to help her protect her privacy a bit more (and a couple of additional tips), whether or not she opts to use a pen name. I do all of these things myself after my own frightening experiences:
1. Get a P.O. box.
If you need to add a physical address to your own website, WHOIS records when registering a domain name, or anything else, use this. Or get an address through one of those private mailbox services that look like a full address if you prefer.
2. Use Google Voice, or a similar service.
It's free. And it gives you another phone number you can publish on your website or give out to professional contacts. It can receive voicemail, and you can forward it to your actual phone so you don't miss calls.
3. Set up a separate email address for domain registrations.
Unless you get WHOIS privacy with your registration, your contact information will be public. This can be a good thing because it tells people someone's really behind the site (spammers are known for using anonymous registrations, so it can make some people skeptical).
Set up an email address just for this purpose. Then set stricter spam settings on it (if you host the email account yourself). In addition to potentially being available to an online stalker, you'll get a lot of spam if your email address is public in WHOIS records. So don't use a primary account for this.
4. Set up message rules in your email accounts.
This is where you tell your email service or software to automatically delete certain things or move them into a specific folder. For example, if a troll is harassing you, set up a rule to auto-delete any future emails from them. It won't stop them immediately. But you won't have to see it, and when they're ignored for a while they'll often lose interest.
5. Block other abusive behavior when possible.
When I was dealing with my own couple of crazies, social networks weren't as big of a deal as they are now. I wasn't being harassed there. But today that's a much bigger concern. We never seem to go very long before hearing about some sort of pile-on.
And yes, it happens to writers. Female writers in male-centric industries have been stalked, shamed, threatened, and harassed. We've seen authors stalk book reviewers for leaving a negative review. We've seen readers gang up on authors for saying or doing the wrong thing. It's silly that these things even happen. But it can sometimes been downright scary.
In many cases, you'll be able to block some of this if you ever come under attack. You can block individuals from communicating with you or viewing your profile and updates on social networks for example.
The network I'm most active on is Twitter. I use TweetDeck specifically because it gives me more control over what I see. If you do as well, you can block certain words, phrases, or even hashtags from appearing in your stream if you need to separate yourself from it. It's not perfect. But it's a mental, and emotional, reprieve.
In a worst case scenario, you could temporarily lock down your account if the network allows it (such as setting your account to a private status in Twitter).
This is a good case for "owning your platform" though. Don't rely exclusively on any social network or other third party for your public visibility. You don't control them, and you won't always be able to manage a crisis or stalker situation there. On your own site, you at least have that option.
Those are a few tips to get you started if you're worried about personal information being a bit too public as a professional writer.
What other tips do you have? Have you ever been the victim of a situation that left you regretting making details of your life public? Share your ideas, stories, and solutions in the comments.