Kate Tuttle over at LitHub.com wrote an article asking what writers owe readers- that is, if writers have an obligation to answer fan mail, help with school assignments and be otherwise available to their readers via social media. Social media has created a new breed of Internet-celebrity author (Neil Gaiman and Margaret Atwood for example) and opportunities for access that didn't exist before.
In the past, a student had to research where to send a physical letter to an author, who might choose to respond or not. When I was in high school a friend sent a polite letter to a local literary A-lister and got a curt postcard "I don't do student papers" in response. The kid told the story around, and it influenced my opinion of that author, but there was nothing anyone could do beyond tell stories. Nowadays readers have blogs and social media followings of their own, and any slip from grace on an author's part can be broadcast indefinitely. That said, the question of an author's obligations to his or her readers isn't new but technology has certainly changed one's sense of proximity to the other.
For some readers, seeing an author on our Twitter feed is like celebrity spotting; it makes our day when a favorite author deigns to acknowledge our existence. When Margaret Atwood replied to one of my tweets, I was beaming for hours. A friend was thrilled to get a private message from a favorite writer only to be bummed when it turned out that the author had been hacked and the message was spam. Another friend was excited when a famous author commented on her daughter's blog, cementing that little girl's fandom for life.
On the downside, this visibility can inflate expectations and someone might presume an intimacy that doesn't exist. Some people think that these authors are actually their friends. Students might think that all authors are available for homework help at all times. No one wants to be jerk, and fans only do it out of, well, fandom, but I think everyone needs to manage their expectations a little.
Fans need to realize that authors have limited time, and their social media time is work more than it's play. It's a tool most people use to an end, like building professional relationships or advertising their work, and it takes time away from what they really want to do- write. So does answering homework questions. People sometimes feel (I have) that because you know an author's work that you know the author- but you don't. You may know the books, but you don't know the author, and more to the point, the author doesn't know you. You are a stranger to that person. They appreciate your well-wishes and kind words, but they don't always have time to be your friend. Think how you would feel if every day you opened your email to find messages from strangers asking for things. Little things, big things, but things that take time and keep you from your work. It might start out as fun or nice but after dozens if not hundreds of them, maybe it stops being that way after a while.
I'm not going to tell writers how to proceed; I think that decision has to be individual. Whatever they do it might be a good idea to have a strategy in mind or even a formal policy stated on their website (and other social media profiles) and adopted consistently. For some that might mean avoiding social media all together. Or sticking to following fellow professionals as opposed to readers. For others it might mean a friendly form letter to use in response to homework questions, maybe one that points to other resources. Still others will want to embrace interaction and make it part of their day. It's tricky because one author might be open to helping and unintentionally give the impression that others might do the same; some have assistants handling their fan email and create the illusion of accessibility where it doesn't exist.
At the end of the day though I think it's up to readers, as well as their parents and teachers, to set realistic expectations and teach appropriate boundaries. And writers can do their part to let readers know what to expect. Readers need to understand that writers are doing their job, and that social media is part of that job. It's nice when authors interact with their readers but nobody should really expect it- just try to be grateful and enjoy it when it happens.