Ugly on the Internet

blank avatarI don’t see a lot of ugly people on the internet. I see cute avatars and funny cartoons and beautiful images. Human beings are wired to judge what they see; it’s a survival mechanism. We make assumptions about people we meet, even without meaning to or realizing it. It’s discriminatory, but discrimination is built into us for a reason. How do we decide whom to trust, if we can’t use appearance as a factor? We shouldn’t give the benefit of the doubt to people who take care of our children or come into our homes. That would be naive.

How do we judge appearances on the internet, when its very nature disarms our visual defenses?There are no faces on here, just avatars and user pix. We talk to one another, but you have no way to judge whether I’m joking, lying, being sarcastic, or just stupid. Emoticons and text-message shorthand (smileys and lol’s) may help your intent come across when you’re texting with a person you know in real life, but a stranger’s smileys are no more trustworthy than their profile.

Is everyone equal on the internet? If we aren’t fat or thin, ugly or beautiful, if we don’t have scars or handicaps or irritating voices, are we all the same?

I read a forum post a few days ago from a woman in her early twenties (I have no reason to doubt that’s who she was) complaining about ‘grammar police’ on the internet – people who correct your spelling and punctuation, who point out every little mistake you make. She thought it wasn’t fair for them to judge her by this, rather than the content of her posts.

I replied that on the internet the way you write is your public face. Just as we notice what people are wearing when we talk face-to-face, we notice how people ‘look’ online. You might be able to write in your blog while wearing your pj’s (as I am now), but you wouldn’t go to a job interview that way.
Talking in a forum isn’t a job interview, but that doesn’t mean people won’t judge you – just as she probably makes decisions about people she sees on the bus or in the grocery store. We make judgments about people’s income, level of education and intelligence, their mental health, their habits.

What can you know about me from reading this? Am I funny, boring, polite, extraverted, handicapped, ugly, shy, sarcastic, old, young, male, female, white, black, poor, wealthy? Do I smoke or drink? How many speeding tickets do I have?

People comment that I rarely make spelling, punctuation or grammar errors when I write. That they point this out tells me that it’s no longer the norm. The truth is that I do make mistakes. I just try to fix them before I post — I proofread. I miss a few, but I try to be careful because I want people to pay attention to what I write, not get snagged by errors. I think it matters how I present my thoughts.
English is not an easy language to use. Even educated adults don’t always know when to use ‘it’s’ or ‘its.’ Comma rules are hard to master, and everybody makes mistakes. Typos aren’t always caught, even by the best proof-readers.

If I see mistakes in the post of a twenty-year-old woman, I don’t consider her an idiot. She’s not CNN; she’s just giving her opinion. She’s not trying to sell her proof-reading services or offering to write term papers for a fee. Even writers need editors. We all make mistakes. And not everything we write needs the same level of scrutiny. I check my emails before I hit ‘send,’ but not as carefully as I check a story I’m posting.

Nobody’s perfect, but we do make judgments all the same. It’s careless to make a lot of mistakes, especially the kind one would catch through proofing. Surely she knows that there are three ways to spell ‘there/their/they’re’ and that a lot of people confuse them. Why wouldn’t she check to see if she’s using the right one? Would she step up to a podium and make a speech in her pj’s? Would she make those same mistakes on a job application or in a college application essay?

I admit to being a grammar geek. If you don’t like my opinion, that’s fine. But I would rather be called an idiot because you disagree with me than to have my opinion dismissed because my writing makes me look like an idiot.

And if I’ve missed something in my proof, please point it out to me. I’m not a complete idiot.


2 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Laura
    Dec 29, 2009 @ 18:14:49

    I guess I’m a grammar geek, too, though some have referred to me as a “grammar Nazi.” I think you’re spot-on with your observations. People do judge you by your writing — just take a look at the hundreds (if not thousands) of Web sites devoted to grammar, spelling, etc. I may turn a blind eye to the grammatical missteps of amateur bloggers, I’m devoted to call out the abuse of the language by so-called professional writers and editors on the Internte, specifically Yahoo!. When they make mistakes, it reflects poorly not only on themselves but also on their employer. — Laura (at


  2. Laurie
    Dec 29, 2009 @ 22:07:25

    brava, dax! thank you for this post. i’ve long thought that trying to communicate clearly includes understanding and using standards of grammar and spelling, that these “rules” are in place for similar reasons to showing guests courtesy: they help others feel comfortable and respected.


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