Social but Safe

Last week literary agent Pam van Hylckama was allegedly assaulted by a writer whose work she had rejected. She initially thought the attack was a car jacking gone wrong, but police were suspicious and searched through her emails and the assailant was found at his home address — the same address he’d included on his query — sporting a bite mark on his arm from Pam’s helpful little dog. Pam, an active individual in social media, has decided to rethink the way she uses Twitter, FourSquare, and other social media outlets, very aware that it can be easy to accidentally telegraph your location to someone who is paying attention.

We live in a world where many of our activities are shared online. We post pictures of our vacations, review great new restaurants, invite others to join us for a writing session at the local library or coffee shop. And all that’s wonderful and entertaining and makes for a terrific virtual community that can spill over into real life as well.

But we need to be a little bit more careful about what we do. Especially those of us who are social online for our jobs — ¬†writers, agents, editors and so on. Reaching out and getting to know people can be a joy, but it’s important to remember that not every encounter will be positive.

As an agent, I have had some negative experiences. There’s always the disgruntled writer who reacts poorly to a rejection letter, no matter how kind it is. I’ve been called names and told to go play in traffic and a number of other unpleasant things. These reactions are certainly rare, a drop in the bucket compared to the number of normal, polite responses I receive, but they do occur and I do occasionally wonder if there’s more behind them than just a bad day and a person who is too quick to hit the send button.

Here’s the thing I want to stress, because it’s been said elsewhere but definitely bears repeating: This person who takes it to the next level, who goes beyond a rude retort, is not a crazy writer; he or she is an individual with some problems who just happens to write. There are plenty of people out there who have emotional or mental issues. These are the people who become stalkers or who react inappropriately to the least provocation or who show up somewhere and lash out and you may never know why. The key is to take reasonable precautions when it comes to letting people know who and where you are.

Keeping Safe on Social Media:

~ If you want to talk about that great new restaurant, do so after you’ve left the building. Go ahead and post photos of your wonderful meal, praise the wait staff and the atmosphere. Just make sure you’re safely out the door before you broadcast to the world.

~ The same goes for using things like FourSquare. You really want to check in at your local coffee shop, you’re moments away from becoming Mayor? Fine. But do it when you’re leaving, not when you first pull into the parking lot.

~ Avoid talking online about your routine in any specifics. If you pick up your kids from school everyday, jog at the local park, or spend every morning at your neighborhood Starbucks, never give out the location on the internet. Anyone paying attention will notice the pattern and know exactly where to find you.

~ If you work from home, put some distance between your work life and your private life. Invest in a P.O. box for work-related mail, make sure your name and address is masked by the company hosting your URL/website, and refrain from talking about your immediate neighborhood in any detail.

~ Be respectful of giving away other people’s information. Don’t assume your friends are fine with you telling everyone you know that you’re all out to dinner together or at a great concert. Likewise, ask before Tweeting photos of your buddies, especially if the location is identifiable. Not everyone is comfortable having their face on the internet.

Social media and the internet in general have made it far, far easier for us all to connect with each other. This can be fabulous when used as a marketing tool, or just as a means of widening our experiences and meeting new people. But likewise, it can make it just as simple for people to find us, whether or not we’d like them to do so. Take a few basic precautions online, and you’ll go a long way toward staying safe when you step away from your computer.