3 Things That Make You Look Like An Idiot Online

Whether you’re a business tycoon, a Hollywood celebrity, or just an average Jane out hunting for a job, how you represent yourself online is something you should have at least a passing concern ...
3 Things That Make You Look Like An Idiot Online
Written by Mike Tuttle
  • Whether you’re a business tycoon, a Hollywood celebrity, or just an average Jane out hunting for a job, how you represent yourself online is something you should have at least a passing concern about. Whether we like it or not, social media is turning every person into a brand. Sharing is replacing privacy. The word “friend” could be trademarked as a verb any day now. And, for some reason, it seems the world is interested in what we are all doing at any given moment, as long as we can tell them about it in 140 characters or less.

    It’s a brave new world. But, that means there are many more opportunities to embarrass yourself, put your foot in your mouth, sully your brand. So, in the interest of helping us all to avoid the stigma of public scrutiny and shame for a bit longer, here are three things you might want to give a bit of extra consideration to as you conduct your affairs online, especially if you run a business.

    Grammar and Language

    The long war of attrition between careless and even flagrant abusers of English and their Grammar Police archenemies is very public. But, at the risk of coming off as “that guy”, grammar-wise, I think this does bear some attention. Again, if you are a business person, this matters more than it would in a private realm.

    Here are a few well-worn offenses that never seem to go away on the Interwebs.

    lose vs. loose – “Lose” is a verb. It rhymes with “ooze”. It means to misplace or to be defeated. “Loose” has a soft “s”, and rhymes with “goose”. It is the opposite of “tight”.

    breath vs. breathe – “Breath” is a noun. “Breathe” is a verb. You breathe. But, you take a breath.

    its vs. it’s – “Its” is a possessive pronoun: “The team listens to its coach.” On the other hand, “it’s” is a contraction of “it is”.

    This one causes more difficulty than ever nowadays, thanks to Apple’s (damn) Autocorrect, which surreptitiously replaces it incorrectly every time. The confusion on this one and the ones that follow comes from the apostrophe, which everyone remembers indicates possession, as in: “That is Harold’s ball.” But, an apostrophe is also used in contractions, like “can’t”. The rule is this: Possessive pronouns do not use apostrophes because they already show possession. So, while you have to add an “s” to many nouns to show possession, the “s” is already present in pronouns like “theirs”, “his”, “hers”, “yours”, and yes “its”.

    your vs. you’re – “Your” is a possessive pronoun: “Is this your ball?”. But “you’re” is a contraction of “you are”. Again the apostrophe sometimes feels like it should be there, but no.

    there vs. their vs. they’re – “There” indicates location (the opposite of “here”). “Their” is a possessive pronoun: “They got their lunches.” And, “they’re” is a contraction of “they are”. That sneaky apostrophe must be reined in again.

    then vs. than – This one has gotten more common, it seems. “Then” is the opposite of “now”. Or, it is used to draw a conclusion, often paired with “if”, such as: “If you’ve eaten, then you can go outside.” Contrast that with “than”, which is used when comparing things: “He is stronger than Todd. But, I prefer to run than walk. But, both are tougher than riding.

    Even if you were bored to tears in middle school English, and managed to use grammar and spell check through college, websites like the Purdue Online Writing Lab can help you muddle your way through the particulars. The occasional flub is not a big deal, in most cases. If you manage to avoid the first two on this list, your practically home-free online.

    But, in addition to basic middle-school grammar violations, there are a couple of other errors that grow more common by the day in the cyber world.

    Begs the question – If you are not absolutely sure what this means, stop using it until you’ve got it. This site is a big help. The phrase refers to a logical fallacy where one answers a question by simply restating the question a different way and presenting it as the answer. It does not mean “leads to the question”. It does not mean “makes me want to ask”. In short, if you follow this phrase with a question, you got it wrong.

    Good example: “I think she’s ugly because she is unattractive.” This is “begging the question”.

    Poor example: “It begs the question: Why is she so ugly?” This is not.

    Sadly, even respected outlets mess this up daily.

    MSN.com“Honey of a deal, but it begs the question: Who’s paying real journalists to travel, do interviews, suss things out on the ground, maybe even risk their lives to bring home the news?”

    Sports Illustrated“Mauer’s latest malady begs the question: ‘Is he breaking down?'”

    CNN“The excitement surrounding the new iPad begs a question: Why do so many people feel the need to have the latest gadget as soon as it comes out?”

    Acronym vs. Initials – There is a difference between the word “acronym” and the word “initials”. An acronym is a set of initials that can be pronounced as a standalone word. Some examples:

    LASERLight Amplification by Stimulated Emission of Radiation

    POTUSPresident Of The United States

    NATONorth Atlantic Treaty Organization

    SCUBASelf-Contained Underwater Breathing Apparatus

    But, initials are not pronounced as a standalone word:

    FBIFederal Bureau of Investigation

    HTMLHyperText Markup Language

    CIACentral Intelligence Agency

    Again, these are initials, not acronyms. This is one of those cases where a more impressive-sounding word is substituted for a simple one. I once had a co-worker who wanted me to take some quick notes in an impromptu meeting. He said, “Here. You can utilize this pencil.” Utilize? He was not incorrect. But he was definitely trying to impress someone in the room. The word “use” still works just fine. If you’re going to use a big word, make sure it means what you think it means.

    Some thought should also be given to etiquette, or as some annoying person once cast it: netiquette. The greatest offender in this category is probably the caps lock villain. Even those who do not use it for every word should consider it a spice to be used sparingly. Look through the comment section on any website and you will find the culprits:

    “Having studied the 1st Amendment in law school, I can assure you, Maggie…THIS is EXACTLY the type of FREE SPEECH that the 1st Amendment WAS written toPROTECT. Do you REALLY believe the Founders wrote this FIRST Amendment for uncontested, politically correct speech? REALLY ?… I HOPE this GROWN woman sues Rush…because I can’t wait to see the “discovery”… she’ll have to open her ENTIRE sexual and POLITCAL history…including ALL her POLITCAL TIES to Obamao and the DNC et al…” [sic]

    A word of warning: there is something out there that I have observed with much glee for years now. It is call Muphry’s Law (yes, I spelled that right). It used to plague me in discussion with other people about grammar. Inevitably, I would misspell or misuse a word in the discussion. That’s Muphry’s Law. Wikipedia explains it this way:

    Muphry’s law is an adage that states that “if you write anything criticizing editing or proofreading, there will be a fault of some kind in what you have written”. The name is a deliberate misspelling of Murphy’s law.

    I fully expect it to happen now, and have learned to laugh it off. So, have at it.

    Myths and Hoaxes

    Steering away from the grammar stuff, we find ourselves in the land of urban myths, hoaxes and political fundraising emails. These are the modern equivalent of the “blotter acid” bulletins our teachers saw in the lounge at school, the word-of-mouth passing of tall tales, the occasional chain letter. Nowadays, news spreads much more quickly. Some weeks back, we talked about a hoax spread on Facebook regarding gangs using little kids to lure rape victims. It turns out that the same story had been around in different forms since 2005 and never had any basis in fact. But, it found a new life recently on Facebook.

    Another Facebook hoax we talked about concerning an airline taking a stand against racism went back at least to 2008. Again, as much as we would like to believe it, there was no basis in fact for that story either. But, that hasn’t stopped it from being spread.

    You probably get emails from people who are very fired up about their political views. Here is an example. (Due to the nature of this category, I had to pick something that was bound to tick off half the readers. I opted to go for the most recent example I could find, regardless of party affiliation.)

    An investigation has revealed the identity of the man whose Social Security number (SSN) has been illegally used by Obama: Jean Paul Ludwig, who was born in France in 1890, emigrated to the United States in 1924, and was assigned SSN 042-68-4425 in or about March, 1977.

    Ludwig lived most of his adult life in Connecticut. His SSN begins with the digits 042, which are among those reserved for Connecticut residents. Obama never lived or worked in that state, so there is no reason for his SSN to start with the digits 042. Now comes the best part. Ludwig spent the final months of his life in Hawaii , where he died. Conveniently, Obama’s grandmother, Madelyn Payne Dunham, worked part-time in the Probate Office in the Honolulu Hawaii Courthouse, and therefore had access to the SSNs of deceased individuals.

    The Social Security Administration was never informed of Ludwig’s death, and because he never received Social Security benefits there were no benefits to stop and no questions were raised. The suspicion, of course, is that Dunham, knowing her grandson was not a U.S. citizen, “either because he was born in Kenya or became a citizen of Indonesia upon his adoption by Lolo Soetoro,” merely scoured the probate records until she found someone who died who was not receiving Social Security benefits, and selected that SSN for Obama.

    This legend is fun for people to pass around, but it has been thoroughly debunked. Nonetheless, you will see things like this making their way around via email and conversations. In order to protect your own reputation and “brand”, just do five minutes of research before spreading something like this.

    There are several online tools you can use to check the veracity of something before you pass it along. If you only have time for two, make them snopes.org and factcheck.org. These are non-partisan and are commonly used by people on both sides of the political aisle in the United States. Another simple thing you can do is a Google search with the word “hoax” and a brief search term you are looking for. Such as “pink slime hoax“, or “obamacare chip hoax“. Even if the material you are looking up ends up not being a hoax, it will likely have been researched before you, and you can find the results of that. (One of these search examples is a hoax, one is not. Can you guess which one?)

    These urban legends and hoaxes are easy to fall prey to. Don’t despair if you miss one. The entire government of South Korea has been propagating an urban legend called “fan death” for decades. People in Korea commonly believe that, if you sleep in a room with a fan, it can kill you. The government even warns people about this in official literature and fan manufacturers include written warnings with their products to keep them pointed away from people at night.


    Which brings us to our third trap that many fall into online: giving out too much information about themselves. This can come in several forms. It may result from simply not being careful with your personal data, not understanding how phishing and other scams are perpetrated, etc. But, what we are concerned with here are the things we voluntarily release about ourselves. This can be in the form of status updates, tweets, pictures, comments and other glimpses into our lives.

    Randi Zuckerberg, sister of Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg and and former Marketing Director of Facebook, famously talked about privacy and anonymity in the Internet of the future:

    “I think anonymity on the Internet has to go away. People behave a lot better when they have their real names down. I think people hide behind anonymity and they feel like they can say whatever they want behind closed doors.”

    First Amendment advocates howled about this. Zuckerberg was speaking specifically about battling exploitation of children, but her statements fit with Facebook’s overall mission to get people to “share” more about themselves than ever before. They promote that stance as being better for us. They say that it allows us to have a more tailored online experience, where we get the “content” that we really want to see as individuals. What it could really mean is that we are more sure targets for very finely-honed marketing techniques. Meanwhile, we are telling more and more about ourselves in a forum where we can not take it back. Even if we were to delete old posts, sometimes it is too late.

    The illustration has been often given about gossip, that it is like climbing a high tower with a feather pillow, then scattering the feathers all over town. There is no way to clean that up once it has been released. So too, things people have said online have a way of outliving their cleanup efforts. It is incredibly easy to take a screen shot of something you see on a Twitter account. Even if it is officially taken down, the evidence is there.

    Embarrassing pictures, drunken photos, etc. are tough to live down. Bruce Springsteen tells the story of a time many years ago when he started playfully taking his clothes off during a photo shoot for a photographer girlfriend. She stopped him and advised him to never strip in front of a camera, even if he was very sure the pictures would remain private. Years later, he appreciates the advice.

    Sometimes, we release lots of information about ourselves without realizing it. For example, I love the Spotify music program and app. But, if you sign into Spotify via Facebook, as every website seems to want you to do nowadays, your listening stream is automatically posted to your friends’ Facebook ticker. (Spotify has noted that people who log in via Facebook, as new users now must do, are twice as likely to pay for music.)

    One evening, a watchful friend let me know via text message that everything I was listening to was being listed in her ticker. Fortunately, I had not jumped into a playlist of stripper tunes or bump-and-grind numbers. I disabled the Facebook connection between the two. Sure, I lost the capability to share playlists while disconnected, but neither was I broadcasting anything private without realizing it.

    Another culprit that will reveal more about you than you might expect is Facebook social reading apps like Washington Post Social Reader that could publicize to your friends that you are browsing articles about celebrity sex tapes or sexually transmitted diseases. Just by using these apps, your reading habits get broadcast to your friends, whether you want them to or not.

    In fact, The Onion, which uses a Facebook login as well, openly declares that what you read will be displayed to others.

    And, even if you manage to use aliases to cover your dirty laundry, time has a way of revealing who you are. Remember, nothing on the Internet ever goes away. It could be a forum post from your college days, a comment on a blog about your opinions on medical marijuana, an old Myspace photo. The past is not through with you. If someone wants to dig deeply enough, especially if they are willing to pay to find information, they can find it. Ask anyone who has Googled an old girlfriend or boyfriend. It’s amazing what you can find with an old email address, a maiden name and a talkative old roommate that fancies herself a photographer.

    So, keep your nose clean. Don’t say anything you wouldn’t want the whole world to hear, no matter what the latest marketeers wish you would do. Everything is on a server somewhere, and not everyone who might get that information is your friend.

    In conclusion, watch what you say, watch what you pass along, and watch how you spell it all. You are a broadcast brand now, whether you like it or not.

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