Is Privacy a Thing of the Past?

Rachelle Gardner

Blogger: Rachelle Gardner

I’ve been talking with a potential client—a staggeringly talented writer and thinker—about her goals and her writing career. At a certain point, we got caught up on a particular issue that had nothing to do with her books or her writing: privacy.

The author writes her blog using initials, rather than her name. She uses an avatar and avoids posting any real photos of herself. She doesn’t reveal personal details in her writing. She hoped to continue in this vein as she entered publishing.

We talked about her desire for privacy, and the need to keep her family safe. And we talked about the fact that she works for an international ministry and wants to maintain a separation between her work and what she writes publicly.

privacyI told her I understood all of that, but I would have a hard time getting her published—and indeed, I think her blog will have a hard time growing up to its potential—until she finds a way to be a real person on social media.

I believe readers want to feel like they are reading the words of somebody who’s authentic. On some level, there is always a connection being made between writer and reader. I have a hard time connecting with initials and an avatar. I get invested when I feel like I’m connecting with a person who has a face and a name.

But does this mean all authors have to give up our privacy and let masses of strangers into our lives?


The secret is to be real, yet keep truly private details to yourself. Be warm, and gracious, and gritty sometimes if necessary, always be a real person, but don’t feel you have to let it all hang out there. You need to seem like a whole, real person—someone with a face and a name and a life. Good days and bad days. You don’t have to be a completely open book.

We create our online personas. For most of us, our social media presence is a reflection of who we are—yet it’s only part of who we are. We hold back what we don’t want to share, and that’s perfectly fine.

I believe it’s becoming increasingly difficult to truly have privacy these days. (Part of me thinks the very idea of privacy is becoming a quaint old-fashioned notion.) When you decide you want to enter the arena of sharing your writing widely, you will necessarily trade some of your privacy for the privilege of connecting with your readers.

Don’t want to be transparent online? At least create the illusion of being “real.”

This doesn’t mean you can’t write under a pseudonym—many authors do—as long as you are “real” in every way that a reader can see.

What do you think? Is privacy necessary, or possible? Do we need to redefine what privacy means to us these days? Do you think a writer should have an expectation of privacy?



Writers trade some privacy for the privilege of connecting with readers, says @RachelleGardner. Click to Tweet.

Is privacy possible for authors? @RachelleGardner asks – you answer. Click to Tweet.

Can you have a writing career without being a “real person” on social media? Click to Tweet.

To connect with readers, at least create the illusion of being “real,” says @RachelleGardner. Click to Tweet.



48 Responses

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  1. Today’s world would drive J.D. Salinger mad…which might be kind of fun to watch.

    The issue really seems to revolve around readers’ expectations, rather than the presentation of ‘reality’, or one’s transparency.

    Writers of humor are supposed to be funny, vampire novelists darkly gothic, Christian writers devout, and science writers cerebral.

    One can maintain a reasonable level of privacy by just staying within the limits of those expectations. Give the majority of readers what they want, and they’ll be content, and not demand shared personal intimacies.

    But privacy does demand discipline, and one simply can’t vent every emotion to Facebook or Twitter.

    We are owned by what we write and what we say; in this kind of slavery we need a benign and cool-headed master.

  2. MELewis says:

    As a writer you must write about what you know, so you give up some degree of privacy. It’s a trade-off that we make but we all have a right to keep certain things private. In the world of social media, the line becomes increasingly blurred. What to share, what to keep secret? To what extent is it possible to compartmentalize your life with different personas? I struggle with this. Interesting post, thanks for sharing!

  3. A person has a public face and a private face. Social media has made it possible to have a wider reach. I can reveal my personality without sharing everything. What would I share with a stranger in the check-out line or in the next seat on an airplane? Certainly, I don’t like to hear the intimate details of someone’s life spoken in a cellphone conversation that should be private.

    I’d like my readers to think “here’s someone I’d like to know better,” and not “I wish I’d never known this.”

    • I think you’ve got it Shirlee! I can make connections without divulging where I lost my virginity. One is friendly. The other a total TMI…though it would probably triple my hits for that post!

  4. jeffo says:

    Sorry, I don’t feel that privacy is “a quaint, old-fashioned notion”. In fact, I feel it’s becoming more important than ever. At the risk of sounding like a tinfoil hat wearing paranoiac, there is too much personal information floating around out there now, and there are too many people willing to use it for unsavory purposes.

    Now, anytime someone enters the public forum–be they writers, actors, performers, politicians–there is an expectation that they’re going to have to give up some privacy. But they shouldn’t have to give it all up, and I think it should largely be up to them what they give up and what they keep secret.

    I also have to ask this, Rachelle–does the average reader really care that much about making connections with authors beyond what’s on the page? Maybe I’m just old school, but when I finish a book by an author I’ve just discovered, I might look in the front of the book for other titles by said author, or I might go to the web to see if there are newer books available by him/her, but I don’t go seeking their blogs, tweets, etc. I just pick up the next book and start reading.

    • Good questions, jeffo; I hope that Rachel answers it. I know that there are some readers who become very invested in their favourite writers’ social media, but I too am curious about the average reader, particularly those readers who aren’t also writers. Do they really care as much as we think (hope?) they do?

      Also, regarding connection, is it really possible to connect with a representation of a person, which is what we all are on social media, regardless of how open we may choose to be?

    • “…does the average reader really care that much about making connections with authors beyond what’s on the page…”

      I wonder this, too. I’ve read books that have been so good and so riveting that nothing else mattered. I’d wonder afterward if there were other books by the same author, but as far as connecting with the author, it didn’t matter.

      Sometimes I do want to know more about an author, but it’s not an imperative. Truth be known, I’d much rather read the next book as the next Tweet.

    • I am also one of the writers who doesn’t want to know too much about the authors of books I like. I love some of the books by Martin Cruz Smith and John Le Carre, but I don’t have much interest in meeting them or learning what they eat for breakfast. I would, however, like to learn to write like they do.

  5. I kind of like sharing bits of who I am with readers. Who I am, what I think, and what I believe are a part of my writing. To dismiss the personal is to dismiss my personality, and I really don’t want to do that. By the same token, I’m also aware that oversharing is equally dangerous. I chose this platform, my friends and family did not, and I don’t ever want to do or say anything that could hurt them. It’s a balancing act, but one that I willingly perform because it’s all part of what I most enjoy: Writing.

  6. Anne Love says:

    …all for the privilege of connecting…I think it’s important to remember that it’s about the connection. Connection is a sacred thing. Caution is warranted, I don’t want to sacrifice integrity in the process. It takes vigilance and balance to find the right way to connect in a professional way that still protects healthy boundaries. But at the same time, boundaries that are too rigid could cut short the opportunity to connect.

    I work in healthcare. Many of my colleagues refuse to get on any public internet forum at all in order to eliminate any possibility of an infraction. I choose not to discuss anything health related online, unless it’s spiritual health–that’s my biggest boundary, in addition to all the expected laws of confidentiality, and HIPPA privacy laws. I appreciate that you mentioned your author’s concern about the ministry he/she works for that is separate from the author’s private work. My job is also very public and serves a population I have a duty to serve. I’m aware that whatever I do in my social life can affect those privileged relationships with the public I serve in my day job. I try to keep them separate, but once we’ve typed words onto the screen of social media, we can’t take them back.

    I use the delete button liberally when I think of posting responses socially.

  7. Jeanne T says:

    There are some great thoughts here. I think, as writers, we need to protect privacy, as we are able. Because most of us have family and friends who could be impacted by too much revelation.

    My husband works in a field where he needs to stay under the radar, so to speak. I don’t mention his name online. Anywhere. I do what I can to protect his privacy. We talked long and hard before I began blogging and getting more involved in social media.

    That being said, I’ve found that I can make connections without violating the privacy of those closest to me. Since social media is here to stay, my goal is to learn how to work within the parameters my life requires in terms of what I share, but also be genuine enough to relate with readers and friends online.

    I wish we could maintain complete privacy, but unfortunately, that seems to be a thing of the past. So, I’ll protect what privacy is within my control.

  8. Thank you, Rachelle. I feel like I fight a tiny battle. My husband likes to keep our privacy … but as a writer, though not well known, I know I have to be real. And I am trying to open up more. I just try to remember to keep to the things that uplift others or that I would share with a person in the local supermarket. And I never want to say or write anything that would embarrass another … I don’t mind embarrassing myself a little. Grin.

    • Jeanne T says:

      I like your standard. Is this something I would share in line at the grocery store? Hmmm. Good question to ask. And uplifting others—that’s one thing I hope I do online too. 🙂

  9. Thank You Rachelle to remind us it is ok to be private. Boundaries seem to work for me. I know that if I play the social media game that day, I choose to move my game pieces on certain boulevards or boardwalks. But I find that if I give to much information about me, I am then playing a game of chutes and ladders.

  10. Leah E. Good says:

    I enjoy making online connections, but I’m also aware that some people can use the openness of the internet for evil purposes. For me privacy is a balance between being happy to share with anyone interested enough to check me out, but to not share enough to make myself or anyone else vulnerable.

    • Carole Mathewson says:

      Yes, Leah,I have been aware of some who were clearly evil in their intent. And when I attempted to make them realize how cruel they had been to an obviously dear person, they struck out at me. For the most part, however, I have been aware of kindness and intelligence among those who participate in these postings. May it ever be so.

  11. I believe in living my real life and my online life honestly. I need congruence and simplisticity. Trying to be more than one persona is too much for my cluttered memory. Besides, if there is no mystery; there is nothing for the curious to dig for. Now, if I was Ste

  12. I’m as good as a teenage boy with my premature posts.

    I was saying, if I were King, I might see it differently. But fortunately (or unfortunately) for me, I don’t have his head aches.

  13. Kim Kardashian posts selfies of her glutes, and anyone in a grocery store line up can see.
    No debate that THAT kind of privacy filter needs help.

    JK Rowling spends a fortune on orphans in Moldova, and people barely know, because she wanted it that way. But, when she was ready, she went to Oprah to get the word out, on her own terms.

    To a large degree, a public persona is a created entity, formed out of the bones of a real person. To what level that persona is maintained and fed is entirely at the mercy of the humans involved.
    Do I want to be known as someone who will do anything to get my name in the media? Certainly not.
    I refuse to sell my private life down the river. Privacy is not a commodity, but it is tangible and I will most likely pretend my Mom is listening whenever I speak publicly.

    Or my kids. Nothing says “You are not THAT special” as a pile of dirty laundry, a dog who needs a bath and spending hours going to and from my kids’sports in a minivan every day.

  14. Norma Horton says:

    Privacy: strive for as much as you can, brace for the least you can tolerate.

    Loss of privacy was the single greatest impediment to my pursuit of publishing. Before I signed with B&S, I reviewed my commitment to delivering to whatever platform I developed. Remembering that nothing is EVER erased from the internet; listing my location regionally instead of specifically; never mentioning my spouse or children by name, or revealing their locations; these techniques are my baseline defenses and common courtesies to those I love.

    God does not call Christians to be naive, and I think we have an obligation to our readers, our followers, and our faith to be reasonably cautious with the physical parameters of how we position our brand as authors. Writer beware!

  15. Lori Schafer says:

    It may be possible for a writer to be successful without releasing his or her real name, photograph, personal info, etc. But when I look at the daily headlines on Yahoo or MSN and similar homepages, it often seems that half of them are about the personal lives of celebrities – actors, music performers, even politicians. People are interested in the person behind the art. And there’s no question that for an author, too, connecting with the public is going to make a big difference in how their work is received and, ultimately, in the level of success he or she achieves.

  16. Like many others are saying, for me it’s a balance between authenticity and protection. I’m probably more open than I should be at times, but even I pick and choose which conversations I want to have and what I want to engage in.

    Sometimes I do wonder if privacy is generational too — not that some people can’t veer in a different direction than others in their generation. But a lot of people in my generation (millenials) don’t seem to have a problem with posting a lot of information (sometimes in a not-so-smart way) on Facebook and online. I of course have a few friends who don’t have facebook profiles at all because they don’t want information about themselves online, but they are few and far between. Just food for thought…

  17. Great post and great comments.

    I use a pen name that I chose because it is based on a family nickname (Kass) and my maiden name (but not my actual maiden name). I did this initially just to make it easy to remember to respond when somebody says, “Hey, Kass” at a book signing.

    But now I’m really glad I did this. Because the name is close to my ‘real’ identity, I still feel real when I am using it. That has helped me to be more genuine with my readers and in my online persona, while still jealously guarding my privacy.

    And I like Norma Horton’s line above. What a great mantra. Strive for as much privacy as you can get; brace for as little as you can tolerate.

  18. The way the world is today, if someone wants to know who you are, there is very little chance of hiding that fact. I don’t publish my address or phone number online and I certainly wouldn’t publish my children’s or grandchildren’s addresses online, but the fact of the matter is, it’s all public records anyway. Using a different name, may hide you for a little while, but if someone is adamant about finding you, rest assured, they will. Most readers today find authors, there for the authors books online. They want to connect, but it’s hard to connect to an avatar.

    • WriterSideUp says:

      Donna (I’m also a Donna 🙂 ), I have never posted my phone number or address online, and I pay to keep my phone number unlisted, BUT—I looked myself up a while back and there I was! Along with my SON’s info! I don’t know how, but it was there *sigh*

      • Carole Mathewson says:

        Yes, Donna, and everyone’s date of birth is online, which makes it difficult for older Americans who must return to the work force. Age discrimination is rampant in the United States today. And, while one might feel younger than his or her posted birth date suggests, the average employer wants to hire the young–regardless of a lack of qualifications.

  19. Cheri Fields says:

    I used to fear the same thing. The things I write about can’t help but create some lawless enemies. But, once I got serious about writing a book it became obvious my name and face would have to be out there.
    What I do want to keep private is exactly where I live and the names of my family. It’ll probably have to wait until a little money flows in, but there have to be ways lawyers, etc. keep their families undercover. So, I’m planning to look into whatever they do to protect my home address and such.

  20. Reba says:

    We all want/need our privacy and I think there is a way to be an open, real person without telling every detail of our lives. Going the extra mile to keep absolutely everything private has to be exhausting.

  21. Carol North says:

    Published authors typically receive many invitations to be interviewed for blogs. They and the blog owners publicize the interviews. The interviews are good ways to connect with readers, who want to know you on a more personal level.

    I mentioned in an interview that I felt as if I had lost my identity (the “mom” part of me) when my last child left home, and how I created a new identity. That information struck cords in readers; we received many comments (and book sales).

    Just be careful with the type of personal information you offer. My rule is “no numbers and no names of others.”

  22. In some cases I’ve felt led to connect with non-Christians in countries fraught with political instability and terrorism. Then I write thrillers that condemn such activities, stories that could easily ‘tick off’ people holding to certain worldviews. I’ve often wondered what I would do if a suspicious looking person of a certain ethnicity rang my doorbell. My conclusion so far, is to keep writing what is laid on my heart, try to write something more than simply condemnation into my stories for those who hold to beliefs I strongly oppose, and not be overly worried about my personal safety. But privacy started fading away with the commercialization of the Internet in the early ’90s, and we all have to seek wisdom in dealing with that reality.

  23. . . . I never tell a stranger where my dog lives.

  24. Elissa says:

    I do not (yet) have a blog or web site. I don’t have Facebook or Twitter accounts. And I am totally shocked by how much of my private information is available online. Date of birth, high school I attended, maiden name, mother’s maiden name, almost every address I’ve had since adulthood.

    These are things I never publicly divulged, but are things I had to write on forms such as driver’s license applications. It seems to me that NOTHING is private any more– and it makes me want to cling to the little bits of privacy I do still have.

    • WriterSideUp says:

      Yep, I just mentioned that in a comment above. The internet has made privacy a worrisome problem for anyone, whether that person is in or out of the public eye deliberately 🙁

  25. Peter DeHaan says:

    Thanks for pointing out that is a middle ground that aim for; it’s not an all or nothing situation.

  26. I’ve never mentioned my kids’ names or anything about them on social media and I don’t talk about my husband there either, except, perhaps, to mention something he said or did decades ago. And I don’t use my real birthdate to join any social media or online groups. I know if someone really wanted to find out those things it would probably be possible for them to do so, but there’s no point in being paranoid. Careful, though, is a good idea.

  27. WriterSideUp says:

    I tend to be a little paranoid about certain things, as far as not wanting to post personal photos on facebook (I’m rarely on there anyway), etc., won’t reveal specifics on where I live, etc. and don’t like putting my last name on anything.

    An actual photo of me is not a big deal ’cause, if I’m ever published, chances are an author portrait will be on the jacket flap anyway, right?

    To me, people we “meet” online are generally “acquaintances,” we don’t always know how much of what THEY put out there is truth, and we must be careful as to whom we trust on any level. Readers are not “friends,” and typically, it’s only true, close friends we reveal private things to.

    One thing I do feel is that getting into certain conversations can cause problems if you want to keep your reputation in a good light. I know an aspiring author who often posts very strong opinions about politics and other things which can easily turn people off. Unless you’re a politician, don’t do it! lol

    We simply need to think at least twice before we say certain things, and honestly, you can be yourself, be real, and make connections that are meaningful without having to blatantly reveal things that are nobody’s business unless you WANT them to be.

    To develop a platform we need to connect, but we need to foster Social Media “heartstrings,” not “nooses.” We don’t want to hang ourselves in the process 🙂 And truth be told, unless any of us become REALLY successful, it’s not quite as much of a concern. Still, with the possibility of becoming REALLY successful, it is true—the internet IS forever, even after you delete it! So be careful what is made permanent. It’s a “tattoo” you don’t want to regret.

  28. I think there’s a fine line. You give up some degree of privacy, but you can control just how much of your life is out there. Obviously you don’t share the intimate details, but do give a snippet, so people can engage with you, see your a real person. You do not have to put your every-waking move out there.

    I have old pictures of my daughters on my blog, and they also have “stage names”. That’s deliberate. I do post newer photos of them on Facebook, but the blog can be about my kids, and other kids too. At some point they may not like that I share these stories about them. It’s not hard to figure out that it’s them, but a few readers have told me it sort of adds to the fun and the humor of it, that with these “names” they become characters in a story and not just me dishing on my kids.

    It’s a trade off. To put your words out there, you have to give up some privacy. We have all given up some in our interactions on social media, but that’s not necessarily bad. It shows we are all human, we are all flawed, and we are real people, in an increasingly smaller world.

  29. I’ve been letting it hang out for over twenty-five years. As a columnist/essayist and blogger what I write has always been – all about me.
    Years ago when handling controversial issues, like gun control, finding me was a little harder than today. Now, with a few key strokes and a little more time than it takes to get your pasta al dente I’m out there for all to see.
    Years ago I used my family’s first names, now I don’t. I’m a local writer and many people know exactly who I am, what I do and where I live. When my columns are funny my husband is not amused when the mirth is at his expense; his friends raze him all the time. I tell him to get over it while I deposit my checks. My kids, one daughter loves when I use her name, the other one would rather I not. I state neither.
    I am careful but no matter how careful you are, you’re out there.
    Privacy is a misnomer and is now spelled G-o-o-g-l-e.

    • See there you have it.
      Instead of my blog name,
      I typed in my real name, as in byline. I didn’t want to do that but it’s done. If you’re interested and your pasta is not yet back to a boil you can Google me. Don’t bother, I’m really not that interesting and your pan is boiling over.

  30. Hi Rachelle
    Privacy is an interesting dilemma. I am pushing towards getting a novel published that includes issues surrounding mental health. I am trying to get some poems and articles out there to boost my writing credits, but in doing so I may be writing about my husband’s bout of depression and my teenage son’s experience of OCD. Also I have written about my own counselling experience which involves my family background. It’s particularly tricky when it is someone else’s privacy you are dealing with! I am going to have to play this by ear and ask permission along the way…

  31. E.R-H. says:

    Social media and author platforms have birthed a new creature; perhaps it’s art, but I’m unsure. It’s certainly nothing akin to literary art, art for art’s sake, or the aesthetic pleasure of reading and writing great literature.

    Writers and other artists have absolutely no obligation to their audience. The relationship, the connection, is solely between the ART and its audience. Readers interact with the literature, and when it becomes a demand, an obligation, an expectation to interact with the author herself, writers will be forced to alter themselves. To adopt facades, mere “illusions” of themselves, and in so doing, their art will change. Writing has long been a solitary endeavor, the domain of the introvert, and forcing authors into a virtual world of interaction and scrutiny may be the death of their art. What a loss!

    It’s lovely to read a biography of Alice Walker or T.S. Eliot, but it’s ridiculous to know what kind of juice they had with breakfast.

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