An article in Vice by Amelia Tait today helps explain the existence of AmIUgly, a subreddit designed to help Redditors determine, well, if they're ugly. Tait spoke with a bunch of users and highlights some of the surprisingly positive sentiments surrounding the site, which some people with body dysmorphic disorder apparently find useful. It still seems odd at first glance, though, that so many people would volunteer for such scrutiny at the hands of potentially cruel internet strangers.
Brian Southwell, a UNC professor who studies this sort of thing, said in an email that this partially has to do with an underestimated benefit of online anonymity. "In the early days of the internet, people worried about the negative, inflammatory language that seemed to accompany the provision of anonymity to the masses," he wrote. "On the flip side, though, anonymity also now provides the possibility of objectivity — or at least the appearance of impartiality — that face-to-face interactions don’t."
Think about it this way: If you ask a co-worker to judge your appearance, are you likely to get a completely honest answer? Alternatively, if you turn to an anonymous forum then you might just get positive feedback that you will really believe and trust. If it doesn’t work out and you get negative feedback, then you don’t need to face those judges in everyday life.
So while it would be easy to imagine the horrors of people piling on to an AmIUgly submitter with increasingly hurtful insults, in another sense this is actually a more straightforward, lower-stakes way to get feedback about one's looks. And if that feedback turns out to be negative? "One could argue that confirming others’ perceptions of one’s appearance, harsh as it might be, could serve as a jump start for a personal improvement effort."
Finally, "we also need to keep in mind that people also are simply fascinated by what others’ think," wrote Southwell. "We don’t want to be alone in the universe; for social beings, any feedback is arguably more gratifying than complete silence and isolation. "
It's hard to not see this as probably the biggest driving factor here: We humans just can't resist finding out what others think about us, even when the truth hurts.