Authors & the Ethics of Social Media


November 23, 2015 by Anne Tenino

In early October (the 2nd, I think), I found out that someone I’d thought I was good friends with was not at all who he claimed to be.

Worse, she (as it turned out) was also pretending to be a bunch of other people—a whole cast of characters populated her virtual life—and one of them was someone I thought I knew well, also.

It sucked. I felt really stupid, although anger helped me get over that fast. I’m not at fault for being gullible. The problem is with people who aren’t in actuality what they claim to be online.

Once I’d figured this person out, I spent a long time dithering, wondering who to tell, then how to tell them, and whether to go public. Someone I trusted gave me some excellent advice (paraphrasing here) “When a bomb like that goes off, it doesn’t just spray shit on the culprit, everyone standing too close to them gets hosed too.” It took me a few more days of thinking, but eventually I unlinked all my social media from this person and (forced to by circumstances) informed her that I knew about her lies.

In the middle of all this, the VP of Communications for Rose City Romance Writers asked members for newsletter content. It suddenly seemed necessary that I write an article for authors about the ethics of creating online personas.

So, I wrote it, it was published, and I’ve been wanting to post it on my blog ever since. I simply didn’t feel I could, because the person who inspired my essay hadn’t come out (or been outed) yet. It seemed better to wait until the bomb went off.

Well she finally has. Hence I bring you my masterpiece. If you or someone you know is a new author considering a persona augmentation, you might want to give it a read.

The difficulty with knowing right from wrong is that there are always gray areas. Killing someone is wrong, unless they’re trying to kill you first, then (maybe) it’s okay. Gray areas are also a problem when defining “ethics” and “morals.” The words are (nearly) synonymous, but not quite.

A moral is essentially a marker or boundary line for the difference between right and wrong. Most people believe killing is wrong, for example.

Ethics are basically the rules for sticking to your morals. Killing another human is wrong (moral). Except when someone is attempting to kill you first, then it’s okay to render them dead (ethic).

Advice-EthicsOn a society-wide scale, ethics are laws. Morals tend to be described as personal (“I feel this is wrong”) and ethics as social (“Let’s make killing another human illegal.”). Looking up “ethics versus morals” on a search engine will give you about a billion hits. If you read even .01 % of the definitions and explanations offered up, you’ll soon figure out that not everyone agrees about the distinctions between them. It’s almost not worth the bother of trying to understand, but if you’re going to be an author with an online presence, you need to give it some thought, because they’re everywhere.

Doctors, lawyers, prison guards, teenagers, even househusbands—for every label you can slap on a human, there are ethical standards that go along with it. For every action humans undertake there are ethical and unethical ways of doing so. There are even ethical yardsticks for discussing ethics. *See text box about the ethics of giving advice, if you’re interested.

For the modern writer, defining moral behavior can be especially problematic when it comes to internet profiles. Everyone who’s spent any time surfing the net knows that at least some of the people they meet in virtual reality aren’t at all what they claim to be in actual reality.

Social media—Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, whatever—is rife with personal deceptions, most of which are pretty minor. According to an April 25, 2014 post on the Scientific American blog, men often claim to be a little taller, and women are prone to dropping a few pounds off their virtual hips. Presumably, we misrepresent ourselves in these ways to make ourselves more attractive. More popular.

I think it’s safe to say that pretty much every writer out there would like to be more popular.

I don’t lie about my weight online, but my entire social media presence is predicated on a misrepresentation. I write under a pseudonym—Anne Tenino—as do many other writers in the world of romance.

SMEthicsScaleIn our society it’s a commonly-held ethicality that it’s okay to deceive someone in self-defense or in the defense of other people. When I began writing romance, my husband’s career was at a place where he was concerned about people connecting my books with him. Choosing to use a pen name was to protect him and potentially my kids, which is in keeping with my personal moral code. The safety of my family comes before the right of the rest of the world to be able to show up on my doorstep at three a.m. to ask for an autograph (as if this would happen), or perhaps to ask if I’d like to see how their shiny new gun works.

Male authors who write mainstream romance sometimes use feminine pen names, or their initials. Female authors who write gay romance may use male names or their initials. Obscuring the author’s gender has a long history in publishing, as readers of this are probably well aware, usually because it’s believed they will sell better if readers believe they are either male (gay romance) or female (mainstream). For the most part, these authors are open about doing so once published. You don’t have to look very hard to figure out M.L. Buchman is a man, for example.

Some writers go farther than claiming a nom de plume, however, creating details of their author backstory that aren’t part of their actual history, or even claiming they’re something they aren’t. In male/male romance there are many examples of female authors using masculine pen names but not being open about it, instead claiming to be gay men for years. By doing so, they’re swimming in ethically murky waters.

Believe it or not, I’m not here to judge the ethics of these choices. Instead, I’m here to warn writers Consequences-3that other people will judge them. While I may (or may not, in some cases) be able to understand why authors seriously misrepresent themselves, I can’t help wondering (as I’m parsing the details in my mind later, looking for the clues I missed about their true identity), Did they really think about the consequences of doing this?

I can’t recommend misrepresenting yourself, but if you’re going to do it anyway, there are two questions I’d suggest answering:

1.) What are your reasons for creating a false persona?

Once you’ve defined your motivations, do a little research and try to identify what the most likely public backlash will be if you either: 1.) reveal yourself later; or 2.) are exposed. You can begin with the list I’ve made, cleverly titled “The Consequences of Exposure.”

2.) Keeping the consequences in mind, ask yourself if you’re willing to accept these consequences. If not, rethink what you’re willing to do to obtain your objectives.

To that end, I’ve created yet another handy graphic, “The Authors’ Ethics Worksheet” for anyone who’s thinking about creating a fictional self along with their fiction.

If you’re an author who’s considering (or already is) passing off a false persona as real, I’d urge you to have very solid reasons, because shit happens on the internet. When shit happens, humans tend to react from the “fight, flight or freeze” part of their brain unless they’re prepared in advance and understand the consequences. In the case of authors pretending to be something other than what they are, preparing begins with deciding what you are and aren’t willing to do to maintain a fiction you’ve lead people to believe is truth.


One thought on “Authors & the Ethics of Social Media

  1. […] Authors & the Ethics of Social Media Anne Tenino on authors, identity and the internet and how to behave ethically. […]

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