This essay addresses an aspiring author’s moderate success in our ever-changing world of literature as affected by technology. It covers a period of time when eBooks were not yet accepted as “real” books and self-publishing was vain. Established forces blocked access to the literary marketplace and helped defend against intrusions, curbing free expression and controlling social interactions. Yes, it was a time before Facebook!
One day in 2006, while surfing the net for promotional opportunities for my first novel, God replied to an email query. I introduced myself to her as an aspiring author trying to enter the science fiction/fantasy communities. She welcomed me to the internet that she owned and gave me some good advice.
Optimistic, having received input from God, I went back to surfing the internet for opportunities. Later, when I checked my inbox, I met God’s first cousins and a few distant relatives too.
Each of God’s relatives, in turn, gave me more good advice, told me that she or he also owned a piece of the internet, but that some people I might run into were just renting sites from month to month, and to be very careful. When I sought clarification about all the different kinds of advice I’d gotten from her relatives, the one true God of Cyberspace warned me to obey the One-Step-At-A-Time Scriptures, or risk being banned from her on-line communities.
I sure didn’t want to be exiled to the world of Snail. That’s where all the Publishers live in paper castles in order to support the almost broke U.S. Postal Service. Although I’d never visited their Houses, I’d heard that strangers weren’t welcomed. So, after very little further consideration, I decided to obey God’s first commandment. I registered for an on-line peer critique writer’s group.
A few days and one-half of the three manuscripts that I had reviewed later, I began to question God’s Scriptures. After all, I reasoned, she had never set eye on my writing.
Why would the one true God of Cyberspace prescribe a treatment before she had performed an evaluation that resulted in a proper diagnosis?
Does God reply to prayers by using a form letter?
From that point on, I decided to carefully check out everybody who gave me advice as a God of Cyberspace. I was somewhat frightened that these gods might have mysterious technological powers that could damn me to the Hell of the Never Published. I’d never run background checks on gods.
I felt determined – a manuscript to pitch and no money to do it.
The internet is big – much bigger than a Super Walmart. I got so tired from surfing around it that I looked for a home for my manuscript by search engine. A stranger referred me to the Internet Assigned Numbers Authority (IANA). When I got there, I found out that God wasn’t home. She had built a nice house, but she never showed up to take occupancy. The IANA didn’t even have a City Zoning Board permit. Cab drivers were not familiar with its assigned geographical territories. I knew that the true God of Cyberspace would never live there – she probably had a castle in the stars.
The next several days, I found my inbox filled with more supportive and instructive advice from authors that I’d contacted to ask for blurbs for my novel, mostly from members of the SFWA. I did get a few blurbs. But, I’d skipped several steps on the How-To-Get-Published Highway: I had not submitted short stories to magazines. I had no name recognition, and I did not attend any writers’ workshops or conferences. I did not engage in relationship building with readers to establish a base. I sent no snail mail to agents or publishers – I couldn’t afford the postage to mail my manuscript.
I hoped that the God of Cyberspace would never find out that I’d done everything wrong.
My inbox also had two mean comments from god-like cyberspace bullies. They told me to never trespass on their properties again: no more unsolicited email, especially no attachments. Also, there an expression of interest by a new eBook Publisher and, a week later, an agent contacted me.
I forgot all about looking for God in Cyberspace.
A year after I thought that my manuscript was finished, I spent the next four months interacting with an Editor. What a trip! I had to first learn what the symbols that she had placed in the margins meant. I emailed her corrections. She snailed me back the entire manuscript with more symbols, over and over again.
Although I’d turned my back on God in Cyberspace, I did thank her that I didn’t have to pay for postage. Maybe God does exist!
The Editor of the eBook publisher was also the Acquisitions Editor for the University of Michigan’s Ancient History Library. She was pickier than anybody that had ever reviewed drafts of my previously published nonfiction: investigative reports on children’s institutions, research on foster care, statistical reports on child abuse and delinquency, etc. – the stuff that aspiring fiction writers produce to supplant their creativity.
An Editor may not be the God in Cyberspace, but this one was Moses.
A couple weeks after I finished my manuscript to the hopeful satisfaction of the Editor, Lacy Dawn came to me in a dream. Lacy Dawn is the protagonist of all my adventures. She warned me that I’d forgotten all about God.
Lacy Dawn told me that no matter how perfect the manuscript, or how well my novel fit the marketplace, since Harry Potter was once turned down by every publisher in the U.K., I’d better find God in Cyberspace, and soon. For the first time in a very long time, she sounded insecure, probably because she was just an eBook character, and due to be released soon.
I’ll never be Harry Potter’s girlfriend for when we’re both old enough if he can’t even touch me to turn on my pages.
I prayed. There was no response from a higher power. So, perhaps true to human nature, I fled to idolatry by revisiting the Commandments within the How to Get Published Scriptures.
I wrote short stories. Two were published in beautiful print magazines: Wingspan Quarterly and Beyond Centauri. One was published in a digital magazine: Atomjack Science Fiction. All three magazines went defunct – God’s retribution for my original sin.
Rarity from the Hollow was released. Lacy Dawn intruded my consciousness by demanding attention. At that time, before self-publishing and indie had become acceptable, when God in Cyberspace equated such with vanity, her relatives had given me conflicting instruction about marketing.
I tried to follow God’s instructions, honest. But, was it my job or the publisher’s job to tell readers about my novel? I suspected that I’d missed an email, or maybe she was still mad at me.
Several of God’s relatives had told me to promote my novel on interactive websites: bulletin boards, chat rooms, forums, blogs, anyplace and everyplace that I could post. That’s what I did next. I hoped that God in Cyberspace would notice and forgive me for taking a short cut to publication.
I later learned that these places were considered to be owned properties under the daily control of moderators. Secretly, I wondered if the True God in Cyberspace – the higher power that all aspiring authors should worship – was posing as an owner or moderator. I decided that a helpful moderator might be as close as I’d come to finding True God. I had looked at a bunch of sites – a lot of property. If God was on one of those sites, she wasn’t posting.
I posted and posted and posted and posted……………………………………….
And, I discovered more information about property ownership. A website is not property like land, or the car that drives over it, or the house built upon it.
There’s been litigation about the internet. One of the most interesting cases that I found was Intel v. Hamidi (Sacramento County Superior Court, No. 98AS05067). Hamidi was a disgruntled employee of Intel who sent an email unfavorable about the company to coworkers. He sent the email through the office owned system after he was fired. Intel argued that the system was its property and that Hamidi had trespassed. Hamidi argued that an attempt to muzzle his email was a violation of his First Amendment rights. He also asserted that tort laws could be used as a smokescreen for silencing those with whom one disagrees. Hamidi won, perhaps because Intel alleged no actual property damage.
After looking at the flow of the case, I knew that Hamidi wasn’t God in Cyberspace, or he would have used a remedy less time consuming than through the courts. This Court Opinion took years to reach. However, like David and Goliath, Hamidi had beaten a giant. I figured that maybe he was a close relative to God.
I decided to follow Hamidi’s example.
To engage in the controversy of free speech on the internet would be risky. Every God I’d met in cyberspace believed that she or he owned at least a piece of the internet, and one of them thought that she owned the whole thing – well, not actually the entire internet, but for aspiring authors, the part that counted the most to us.
But, I also decided to be very careful about posting about my novel on interactive websites. It could backfire!
Cowardice surfaced. So, I weighed the advantages and disadvantages of creating my own website to advertise my novel vs. self-promotion on interactive sites where any member could post comments. I decided that I should put up a moderated site to tell everybody about all the wonderful things concerning my work, how a percentage of author proceeds had been designated to prevent child abuse – stuff like that. I could post my glowing critical reviews, the great blurbs that I’d received, with an excerpt, links….
I could become another insignificant God in Cyberspace without worrying about the complicated free speech issues. I would moderate out any comments that expressed the opinion that my work wasn’t God sent, or which mentioned a competitor’s work….
It felt so good for a short minute.
Leave it to Lacy Dawn to burst a bubble.
She’s so practical – it’s an avoidance symptom of PTSD resultant from her childhood maltreatment. “So,” she admonished, “You tell everybody I’m great on your site, and then someone posts on another site that I suck. I’ll never meet Harry Potter that way. What’s wrong with you, anyway? I’ve never know you to act like such a chicken. Besides, no real or imaginary person is loved by everybody. I can take criticism. Can you?”
True authors do not delete on-topic and honest critical comments submitted to their interactive websites. Such actions would be in violation of First Amendment protections, and are insults to the history and art of Literary Criticism.
Unless a member comment includes: some type of illegality, such as defamation or copyright infringement, violates a community standard, such as disruption in a library or prompting a riot on a subway, or enflames against protected classes of people, such as racial profiling, cyberspace is public. You can own the hardware and software to participate in the World Wide Web, but, unlike your own home, unwelcomed guests cannot be ordered to leave simply because the renter of a domain name doesn’t want contrary opinions expressed – “You Have Been Banned for Life.”
The First Amendment can be an equal threat and protection to the financial interests of law-abiding authors who administer interactive web sites.
Of course, people have a right to create websites that exclusively express their opinions or advertise their products. It’s easier than getting a Letter to the Editor published in the local newspaper. Nothing requires, for example, the producers of a television commercial about Dodge trucks to mention Toyota trucks, or to invite consumer input.
In today’s marketplace, fiction is the same as any other commercial product. Like Viagra or Cialis, one genre may work better for some than the other.
Competitive advertising is the mainstay of Capitalism. Who hasn’t at least thought about calling 1-800 numbers when “infomercials” interrupt regular TV programming late at night? Everything from life insurance, to folding ladders, to lawn trimmers…are what insomniacs think about when R.E.M. sleep is elusive.
Interactive author websites that censor consumer input are subliminally seductive to a degree that late-night infomercials will never achieve.
Subservience to forum rules forms a bond among registrants who enjoy their social interactions so much that critical review of the author’s publications is of little interest. The forum becomes the outdoor recreation area of a penal institution where inmates are permitted to establish the only meaningful relationships of their existences, as long as one doesn’t violate the rules and end up restricted to the cell block.
This practice reflects upon the personal ethics of an author who believes that she/he owns property as a God in Cyberspace.
“Coming This Summer” suddenly appeared on the publisher’s website one day. Lacy Dawn applied more pressure for me to do something, but she gave no specific instructions. Maybe she will save the universe from an impending threat when she gets older. But, self-promotion of an upcoming release, I knew from my contemplations, would be much more difficult.
I registered on some forums, but before I posted anything I looked again at the issue of free speech. I didn’t want to place Lacy Dawn at undue risk. She’d already been through so much in her life.
I went to the U. S. Supreme Court to see if the true God in Cyberspace was hanging out there. She wasn’t. The most interesting thing I found was another relevant case: Ashcroft v. ACLU (03-218, September 30, 2003). The Court had found the internet to be “…the most participatory form of mass speech yet developed….” It advised lower courts to “…perpetually uphold freedom of speech….” After I looked closer at this case, I found out why the true God in Cyberspace didn’t hang out with the Justices. The case was about children’s access to pornography – the last thing that Lacy Dawn should be exposed to. She’s only ten years old. Again, it was the double edge of the First Amendment in cyberspace.
If pornography could be protected, I figured that telling folks about my new novel must be okay. So, I went to blogs, bulletin boards, chat rooms, and forums with interactive access to self-promote.
The places I visited were not exclusively those maintained by authors, publishers, or even SF/F related. Rarity from the Hollow included social commentary about child abuse, domestic violence, mental health, disabled veterans, medicinal use of marijuana, and other contemporary issues.
When mentioning my novel, I tried to stay close to the topics posted in the threads. I tried to be respectful based on my understanding of the sites’ rules of conduct. I never cursed. I never insulted anybody. And, I’d already learned that critical review of anything was a sin, so I clamped my mouth shut, sometimes for hours after I got home from my day job as a children’s psychotherapist.
Not being permitted to speak one’s piece on interactive websites can be psychologically distressful – either adapt or be banned.
I got blasted on a blog for not following the traditional protocol for aspiring authors. In weakness, I blasted back. “Who is this guy?” I asked. He was the Moderator – fair enough. The God in Cyberspace wasn’t a contributor to this blog anyway.
When one respects the First Amendment, one achieves greater self-respect.
On the same blog, a negative comment about me was subsequently posted by an anonymous user. By this time, I’d just about given up on finding the true God in Cyberspace. I knew that it couldn’t be this commentator if she or he wouldn’t even show face.
When I researched this type of post, I found that the issue of anonymity on the internet was evolving in the anonymous poster’s favor (McIntyre v. Ohio Elections Commission, 514 U. S. 334 ). Courts have ruled that if a person puts up a website anonymously and then posts critical comment about another person, defamation must first be established before the ISP has to disclose the anonymous person’s identity (Melvin v. Doe, 49 Pa. D. and C4th, 449 , No. 21942 [Virginia]; GD 99-10264 [Pennsylvania]).
So, I clarified my previous post on the same blog and went from one interactive site to another for weeks that turned into months, now years. Somewhere along the way, I lost the last of my hope for finding the true God in Cyberspace.
With growing agnosticism, I found interactive sites which enforced varying degrees of censorship. None posted a rationale for its Code of Conduct that felt like it had come from a higher power, or even a legitimate authority. Censorship practices were enforced from one extreme (none) to the other: delete everything that doesn’t help sell the products or positions held by the “owner.”
Some interactive website environments were more adverse to my self-promotion than others. I got banned from a SF forum for telling members about Rarity from the Hollow. It felt good. Every now and then I still try to log-in to reread that message for enjoyment.
When one has done no wrong, it’s an honor and relief to be banned for life from a community that condones unethical conduct.
On one site, I found sexually explicit and vulgar language. I could have posted anything about anything there. I was glad that Lacy Dawn was busy with her studies. She doesn’t like to hear boys talk nasty.
On another site, I posted a comment about research into the medicinal use of marijuana for the treatment of Bipolar Disorder – a topic in my novel that I’d hoped would attract reader attention. Others posted about the illegal use and production of various drugs for recreational purposes. Since her father has a well-hidden marijuana garden up their hollow, Lacy Dawn might have been more comfortable on that site, but I wasn’t. It felt like a bust.
At some point during my very long and ongoing self-promotional campaign, agnosticism turned into atheism. A superior authority just couldn’t exist given the disparities that I’d found in censorship policy among interactive websites.
God has laws and provides guidance on obedience. There have been no Beatitudes delivered during a Sermon on the Mount in cyberspace.
Discouraged because of low sales, I temporarily gave up on self-promotion of my first novel and went back to writing its sequel, Ivy. One day, a miracle happened. I got a letter, not an email, from the true God in Cyberspace. She laid down the law the way one would expect a god to do.
I was not to post any comment on her website unless it had the potential to increase sales of her novels, thereby also increasing the value of her property – the totality of the internet, a network that reached much farther than planet Earth. For a moment, I was in love. At last, a god who knew how to express greatness.
Each night for a week, I prayed after going to bed that God in Cyberspace would lead us toward a uniform free speech policy that made sense to all lesser gods and that would be in the public good of a capitalist nation. I wanted my author website to be like hers, when I got one. I would create a Dear Lacy Dawn Advice Column where my protagonist would tell everybody how to best buy my novels no matter what they asked about – damn the Constitution. Cyberspace didn’t exist when it was written.
Leave it to Lacy Dawn to burst yet another bubble. She told me that her best friend, Faith, had gotten killed because she was too afraid to tell anybody about what her daddy had done to her when he got drunk every Saturday night. She said that Faith had been psychologically censored by her familial, school, and community systems and that Faith felt that nobody would believe her anyway.
Censorship for personal gain is just plain wrong.
“Truth by personal perspective, truth on a turnstile – that’s the only kind of advice column I’m going to run,” Lacy Dawn said. “Get to work on fixing this big problem with the internet right now. My sequel won’t get off the ground until we have better name recognition. I’ll die. Do you want that?”
I sent a letter back to the true God in Cyberspace. It didn’t include effective argument because I’d read every novel that she’d written, and it was good work. I had to fold to fit, but I put God’s letter inside one of her novels on a shelf in my basement. If I live longer than she does, I’ll sell the letter on eBay so that I can raise a little money for adverts of my novels.
Good fantasy seldom makes good reality.
A few weeks later, I got an email from the moderator of another interactive site. He said that my posts had been deleted because they had mentioned my novel. This Mod apologized, and included a link to a policy that referenced censorship for cursing, although he acknowledged that I hadn’t cursed. I thanked him, but argued my case for free speech.
My objection to having my posts deleted was referred to a supervisor. She emailed me that her company owned the property and could impose any rules that she wanted, that she could censor anything, and that I had no free speech rights on her site or anyplace else in cyberspace unless I paid for such rights.
Subordinate staff must enforce arbitrary decisions by management or lose their jobs.
I’m not an expert on Constitutional law. I’m a social worker who just retired from a job as a children’s psychotherapist after forty-two years in the field. But, I know someone who is an expert, on everything:
“How did you get so smart, Lacy Dawn?” Faith asked. “Your parents are dumb asses just like mine.”
“I’ve got another best friend. He teaches me stuff.”
“A boy? You’ve got a boyfriend? Did you let him see your panties?”
“It’s not like that,” Lacy Dawn answered.
“Where does he live?” Faith continued to probe.
Lacy Dawn pointed to the sky with her free hand.
I finally found the one true God in Cyberspace. She’d been on my hard drive all along. Until the evolving body of law establishes binding principles, below is the deal on “The First Amendment and the Internet” according to Lacy Dawn.
I’m still plugging Rarity from the Hollow. Recently, my writing was compared to Vonnegut! On May 18, 2015, the retired editor of Reader’s Digest posted his review that my story was the best science fiction that he had read in several years. I now pay even closer attention to what Lacy Dawn instructs me to do – she’s my mentor. I recommend that we all study her ten beatitudes:
- Self-Governance. Voluntary self-governance of the internet could become a viable model for balancing free speech with property rights only if cyberspace communities adopt a standardized application of guiding principles. With regard to interactive websites, the one censorship extreme (profanity and pornography) is no more objectionable than the other (censorship to promote self-interests and to increase sales). Both are vulgar and equally disrespectful of public interests.
- Censorship for Personal Gain. Censorship practices by “owners” of interactive websites must, by law, be based on public policy that rises above personal gain. For example, in the courtroom free speech is regulated. Who, what, when, and where something can be said is moderated by a judge. There is a logical connection between the enforcement of court rules censoring free speech and the higher purpose of the proceeding: Justice. Interactive websites must strive to achieve a higher calling to justify censorship and to explain rules of conduct governing the behavior of members that is based on logical connections to higher purposes. Personal gain is not a logical connection that justifies censorship.
- Governmental Intrusion into Private Property Interests. While website domain names and the equipment that maintains them are property interests, there are zillions of laws and civil remedies that provide for governmental intrusion into property rights given circumstances. These laws affect what you can legally do with your car, farm, house, gun, etc. The protection of free speech on the internet is just as important as the protection of citizens from drunken drivers.
- Cyberspace is a Public Place. Websites exist as property that only functions within a public place, without which place the personal property owned would become valueless. Once a site opens itself up to allow for public comment by becoming interactive, the laws governing free speech are applicable. A site could remain as a basic expression by an entity. But, if a property owner chooses to relocate into a public place for any purpose, stop whining about comments that you don’t like! Critical comments have the same right be posted on your site as complimentary comments if there is no violation of public policy interests.
- Code of Conduct. Censorship practices by interactive websites are open to public debate and individual challenge even when the property interests of the site’s “owner” may be affected. Any minor can achieve adulthood on any site simply by entering a fake birth date. By analogy, a school administrator operates within a similar public place as a website. He or she has the established right and duty to control the behavior of students and trespassers when it clearly interferes with the safe and efficient operation of the school – a property for which he is responsible. Both the school administrator and the website administrator may be held personally liable if negligent.
- Justified Infringement on Liberty Interests. In reference to the above analogy, infringement of liberty is not justified because the school administrator is in charge and has the authority to control the behavior of subordinates. Again, it is a matter of public policy. Website administrators have no authority to infringe on the liberty interests of members just because they are the boss.
There was an interesting court case here in West Virginia that involved a student who was expelled from school for wearing an Anarchy tee shirt. The girl challenged the expulsion based on her First Amendment rights. There was a big public debate about the school’s censorship practices. The case went to the State Supreme Court and it found that the student also had a property interest in an education. Ultimately, the expulsion stood, but it wasn’t because of the tee shirt or because the administrator was the boss of the property. The student had organized half the school into an Anarchy Club with members
that refused to attend class. Her behavior violated of public policy.
- Due Process. Administrators of interactive websites may have a right to curtail free speech of a member if it grossly interferes with the purpose for the site’s existence, such as the education of members about upcoming novels or events, a social issue, or when it interferes with the free speech of others. However, site administrators, at the same time, have a duty to ensure reasonable procedural safeguards that address grievances and challenges to make sure that censorship – banishment – is justifiable based on a higher standard than the expression of an unwelcome opinion.
- Property Damage. Obviously, interactive site administrators have legitimate authority to protect their property from damage if a known or suspected hacker, for example, uploads a dangerous virus that threatens to destroy a site or potentially spread to the computers of other members. However, reliance on potential property damage as the basis for censorship has been litigated (Hamidi, op. cit.). There must be a clear and present risk of property damage to justify censorship of expression.
- Protected Classes. Interactive website administrators should protect the human rights of all to free speech, paying special attention to protected classes. A practice that deletes all speech from people who fit one profile, but which permits posts by people who fit a different profile, the practice may be discriminatory and illegal. For example, if an author targets teenage white female readers for potential sales of a YA novel, and then only permits comments that clearly fit the profile, it may be a civil rights violation.
- Duty to Censor. Just as in free speech on paper, I know of no authority that forces an administrator, such as a newspaper editor, to read submissions before releasing them to the public, but it may advisable to do so. An administrator not only has the right to censor illegal material, but may have a duty to do so. For example, it is an important public policy to get rid of child pornography and to prosecute offenders. A website that permits illegal material to be posted may place itself at risk of prosecution or civil suit.
- Maintenance Costs. The fact that an interactive website owner pays for the maintenance of the site does not, in and of itself, grant the authority to censor free speech or disregard public policy. On the contrary, additional responsibilities come with ownership of many kinds of property. If one buys a house, he or she is responsible for maintaining the house in compliance with city building codes, or incur the fines and liabilities that come from negligence. If one buys a horse, there is a legal obligation to feed it or face animal cruelty charges. No authority forces “owners” of interactive sites to put or keep them on the internet, but owners are responsible to maintain compliance with public policy until taken down.
- An Alternate Reality. Lastly, the internet is different than a piece of real estate where the owner is permitted to put up a no trespassing sign and shoot violators. However, it would be easy to project an alternate reality where censorship is upheld as a property right – the Big Money would be right there to support it. Consolidation of websites under a unified management structure, like happened with once competitive TV stations, is not so far fetched. Public compliance under such a consolidation could be achieved because the worst thing that could ever happen to someone would be banishment from cyberspace. It might be regarded as a worse punishment than the exile of political dissidents from their home countries….
The above views are the property of Lacy Dawn – just kidding. She would never try to own something that God meant to be freely shared among the human race.