Today, I've been thinking about privacy and anonymity as they relate to the users here at E2. This is closely related to the whole issue of whether an individual takes on a persona here or tries to just be him or herself.
The right to anonymity on the Internet is fiercely defended by many Netizens. The idea goes that, freed from the prejudices that might be brought on by knowledge of your gender, race, orientation, age, etc. your contributions to the 'Net (words, graphics, code, etc.) have to stand on their own and be judged by others solely on their merits. Freed from the fear of negative consequences from one's parents, employer, the police or the government, an anonymous Netizen can be truly free to speak his or her mind.
The sticky, icky underside to Internet anonymity is that too often it's abused. Anonymous commentary is, sadly, often used as a cloak by cowards, trolls, and other vandals whose only goals are insult and destruction.
Most people hit a middle ground: they're not out to hurt anyone, and they're not engaging in criminal or taboo dialogs. They're regular people who fear the risks -- real or imagined -- of revealing personal details to strangers.
I share a bit in my nodes here ... but only the stuff I don't mind telling 50,000 of my closest friends. Some of my non-'Netgoing friends have questioned the safety putting my resume up on my personal site; most of us webbies of a certain age have our resumes out there, for our own convenience if nothing else. It's generated some legit headhunter traffic, and no badness that I can see. The phone number doesn't go up, the street address doesn't go up. Those all-important fine details for identity theft are missing.
But I've seen some people get overly concerned about privacy, particularly amongst certain segments of the geek community.
I overheard a conversation at the last science fiction convention I attended. A group of fans were talking about the evils of grocery store cards. One of them said, "I put Starmaster Zoltan on mine! Corporate America's not getting my name!"
That very night, I was down at the local Giant Eagle with my discount card clutched in my hand. I was about to buy milk, vegetables, soda, and a box of tampons. The suits were gonna know that I or someone close to me was ... *cue dramatic music* ... menstruating! Holy shit!
I briefly flashed back to my 14-year-old self, red-faced with embarrassment the first time I had to buy "feminine supplies", as if the cashier was going to condemn me for taking care of a normal biological function.
I told the ghost of my teenage self to get over it, plunked down my card and got my $3 discount. Maybe Corporate America would send me a coupon.
I wouldn't, of course, use the card if I were planning to buy up mass quantities of Sudafed etc. for the worry I'd be pegged as running a meth lab.
That kind of thing is a concern. You don't know who might be reading your nodes, and you don't want a visit from The Man over a public revelation of criminal activity. But The Man really ain't gonna care one bit about the awkward everyday stuff that all us humans go through: love, sex, breakups, the heartbreak of halitosis.
Stalking's a legitimate concern, too. But the irony is that of the two Netizens I know who've been stalked, none of them met their stalkers on the 'Net. One was stalked by an ex-boyfriend she originally met through her sister. A male friend of mine was stalked for months by a seemingly-normal woman who struck up a conversation with him in the checkout line at Staples.
We can't truly be anonymous in our everyday lives any more than we can always declare our individuality in a world where we're recognized mainly by our account numbers.
And, for those of us who grew up wanting to be writers, the new traditions of Internet anononymity run right up against the Old School Writer's Credo: if you don't have the guts to sign your name to it, you probably shouldn't be writing it.
Some pro writers do use pseudonyms, of course, but outside the erotica ghetto it's usually done for marketing purposes in the modern writing world. Alice B. Sheldon became James Tiptree, Jr. in an era when science fiction written by (gasp!) a woman was assumed to be unacceptable to a male readership. Stephen King became Richard Bachman when his publisher feared he was saturating the market and risking his audience getting bored with seeing his name on everything.
Ed Gorman, the best-published writer most of you have probably never heard of, publishes under seven or eight pseudonyms that are genre-specific; he was encouraged to do this to avoid "confusion" amongst readers of his work. The result? His career has possibly been limited because people don't know he's written as much as he has and can't draw connections between his pseudonyms to seek out and purchase his other work.
But to use a pseudonym to hide details of one's life that might be revealed in essay and in fiction -- not that many pros go that route.
When I started publishing, I knew from the start that I wanted to use my own name. But when I started writing erotica, I was given pause. You can write about a murder or robbery, and few readers will assume you're a closet criminal. But write about kinky sex, and the assumptions fly.
Did I want readers associating those probably wildy-incorrect assumptions about my sex life with my real on-my-driver's-license, on-my-phone-bill name?
I kept weighing the personal shame of not having the guts to put my name to something I'd labored to write against the risk of getting stalked.
And so I picked out a pseudonym that I only used when my stories appeared on a sexually explicit site. The other, "literary" erotica site publishings got my real name.
When I came here to E2, I knew I absolutely, positively had to use some recognizable variant of my real name because I would be posting work I'd originally written for other sites. I didn't want to get accused of plagiarizing my own writing, but I didn't want to look like too big of an unimaginative dork for not creating a festive username.
(A side note: As it turns out, I was briefly under the cloud of suspicion for plagiarism anyway, but that was quickly cleared up. I encourage every user who plans to use work that they've written at other sites to include their homepage URL or some other type of identification so that we editors can quickly determine that you're not stealing other people's work. This will save a whole lot of unpleasantness. Providing some outside context is also a help in determining if you know what you're writing about in the absence of other citation.)
I did do the whole soul-searching bit when I started thinking about posting my erotica here, too. Would I get weird, creepy messages from horny users? Would someone try to stalk me?
Then I said to myself, "Self, you've been writing horror stories about cannibalism and murdered lovers. They're probably leery of you at this point."
And, as it turns out, I was right. Not a single creepy message so far (no, that's not an invitation).
So I guess my take-home message to newbies is this: be anonymous if you want. Use a nick if you think the name's cooler than the one your parents gifted you with. Be extra-anonymous if you're telling us how to smuggle drugs or steal electricity. Be über-anonymous if your fundamentalist father might find out you're gay.
But chances are good your life isn't nearly as scandalous as you might think, and by not clinging so tightly to anonymity, you can give us some perspective that will help us appreciate your work here more. And that, in turn, might get some of us interested in the work you're doing in real life. And that can be a very cool thing.