Rule 5: Make yourself look good online

Take advantage of your anonymity

I don't want to give the impression that the net is a cold, cruel place full of people who just can't wait to insult each other. As in the world at large, most people who communicate online just want to be liked. Networks -- particularly discussion groups -- let you reach out to people you'd otherwise never meet. And none of them can see you. You won't be judged by the color of your skin, eyes, or hair, your weight, your age, or your clothing.

You will, however, be judged by the quality of your writing. For most people who choose to communicate online, this is an advantage; if they didn't enjoy using the written word, they wouldn't be there. So spelling and grammar do count.

If you're spending a lot of time on the net and you're shaky in these areas, it's worth brushing up on them. There are plenty of books available, but you'll learn more -- and possibly have more fun -- if you take a course. If you're an older adult , you don't have to take a "bonehead grammar" course with a bunch of bored teenagers. Instead, look for courses on proofreading and copyediting; they usually cover the basic rules of grammar pretty thoroughly, and they'll be filled with motivated students who are there because they want to be. Check your local community college and university extension catalogs -- you'll be amazed at what they offer. A side benefit is that taking courses involves meeting people you can actually see.

Know what you're talking about and make sense

Pay attention to the content of your writing. Be sure you know what you're talking about -- when you see yourself writing "it's my understanding that" or "I believe it's the case," ask yourself whether you really want to post this note before checking your facts. Bad information propagates like wildfire on the net. And once it's been through two or three iterations, you get the same distortion effect as in the party game "Operator": Whatever you originally said may be unrecognizable. (Of course, you could take this as a reason not to worry about the accuracy of your postings. But you're only responsible for what you post yourself, not for what anyone else does with it.)

In addition, make sure your notes are clear and logical. It's perfectly possible to write a paragraph that contains no errors in grammar or spelling, but still makes no sense whatsoever. This is most likely to happen when you're trying to impress someone by using a lot of long words that you don't really understand yourself. Trust me -- no one worth impressing will be impressed. It's better to keep it simple.

Don't post flame-bait

Finally, be pleasant and polite. Don't use offensive language, and don't be confrontational for the sake of confrontation.

Q. Is swearing acceptable on the net?

Only in those areas where sewage is considered an art form, e.g., the USENET newsgroup alt.tasteless. Usually, if you feel that cursing in some form is required, it's preferable to use amusing euphemisms like "effing" and "sugar." You may also use the classic asterisk filler -- for example, s***. The archness is somehow appropriate to the net, and you avoid offending anyone needlessly. And everyone will know exactly what you mean.

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