Readers -- Did You Mean to Give Me Your Phone Number?

08/12/2011 03:41 pm ET | Updated Oct 12, 2011

I'm a novelist. Like virtually every author who's had a book published in the 21st century, I use social media to reach out to potential readers and to spread the word about my books. I'm grateful for the readers who've chosen to follow me on Facebook and Twitter as a result, and I try to show respect for their attention by posting only interesting content.

I've always thought of this communication as a one-way street. It's me, the author, reaching out to readers with information about myself and about my books, not the other way around.

When readers sign up for my author newsletter, or send me their physical address so they can receive a signed bookplate, or when they win a copy of my books through a contest I'm running on Goodreads or on my blog, I'm conscious that they're entrusting me with personal information for a specific purpose, and that this information is not to be otherwise used or shared.

However, I recently learned that on my Facebook "contacts" page, I can see the phone numbers of the folks who've friended me who also use Facebook's mobile phone app. I have over 1,000 Facebook friends. It's a long list.

Sam Grobart, of the New York Times' Gadgetwise blog, explains what's going on:

If you recently installed the Facebook mobile app onto your smartphone, you had the option to sync your phone contacts with Facebook. For most people, the main payoff was that friends' Facebook profile pictures would appear onscreen when they called.

But what you were doing was allowing Facebook to keep tabs on your phone's contact list (you got a pop-up box basically telling you that). That's how Facebook is able to determine that the Sam Grobart in your phone is the same Sam Grobart you are friends with on Facebook.

So Facebook has the content of our phone's contact list. And that's because we let it.

Grobart isn't overly concerned. He sees Facebook's information gathering as a normal, even desirable, function of the website, with one caveat:

The only thing" -- and this is not insignificant -- is that you may not have been aware just how much information Facebook has on you. Seeing that contact list can be jarring -- unnerving, even. You clicked an 'O.K.' button some months ago to get some new feature and didn't really think about it, but doing so allowed Facebook to pull in a not-insignificant amount and type of data about you and your friends.

I realize that much of what used to be considered private information is readily accessible on the Web, including street addresses and phone numbers.

But the idea of authors having a list of their readers' phone numbers compiled for them by Facebook and readily available at their fingertips just feels wrong. I doubt the readers who friend authors on Facebook because they're interested in the authors' books also intend to give the authors their phone numbers.

Will authors use their contacts list to telephone their Facebook fans and pitch their books? Probably not. But for readers who aren't savvy about their Facebook settings, Facebook has made such a telephone solicitation a possibility.

In my case, at least, when it comes to receiving an unwanted dinnertime phone call, readers don't have to worry. I'm a writer with a phone phobia. When I want to tell my readers about my new novel, the last thing I'm going to do is call them up to talk on the phone.

[Want to delete your phone number from Facebook? Instructions here.]

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