Today in Cyberspace

I ran across a couple of interesting things online today and, incredibly enough, this seems to be a better space for them than my Facebook wall. Startling.

Interesting Internet Thing #*1: The POWER of the Internet (*not a hashtag, I’m taking back the pound sign)
This easy find was conveniently dropped into my virtual inbox by the faceless media presence of the University of Texas at Austin. The article immediately reminded me of our recent reading of “The Bioethics of Cyber-Medicalization” by Andy Miah and Emma Rich (available in their The Medicalization of Cyberspace and Pramod K. Nayar’s The New Media and Cybercultures Anthology).

That selection dealt largely with the questions raised by the online promotion of anorexia, also known as “Pro-Ana” (surprisingly easy to find via Google). Those questions may or may not be particularly difficult, depending on how much moral relativism one is willing to engage in. For those who prefer to think of the preservation of life as a universal goal, the UT article is a good reminder that the “medicalization” of cyberspace (that is, people’s ability to get medical advice or other forms of care via cyberspace) is certainly not always a “bad” thing.

Once this comparison drew me to the article, I started thinking a bit more about its relationship with more general cyberspace issues. For one, a fair bit of thinking about the internet deals with the nature of text-based online communication, but, with the advent of Skype’s free audio/video communication, text is now only one means to communicate online. In the survey discussed in the article, treatment for depression via Skype was similarly effective to face-to-face treatment, but significantly more effective that treatment via telephone. In all likelihood, text-based treatment would have been even less effective. Clearly enough, communicating with video is different from communicating without it; different sorts of communication need to be discussed in ways that recognize their differences.

After revealing this interesting bit of data, author Tim Green of UT’s media brigade managed to squander a good bit of the resulting good will (at least with me) with the article’s pithy closing sentence: “Who knows? When it comes to treating depression, [UT professor and researcher Namkee] Choi might have an app for that.” I don’t necessarily take issue with the medicalization of the internet, but I would take issue with the “app-itization” of medical care. “App” connotes an easy, downloadable, one-size-fits-all solution to a problem, hence the Apple slogan “there’s an app for that.” Medical care, by contrast, should be prepared to adapt itself to the unique needs of each patient, no matter how it is distributed.

Frankly, most services ought to adapt themselves to each beneficiary as much as possible. A “there’s an app for that” solution to a problem is only possible when people won’t realize the difference between a personalized approach and a mass-distributed approach. And even then, a travel agent will likely be more personable than priceline.com. The important thing to consider is what kind of communication will be best in a given situation. There can be an “app for that” when efficiency is preferable to personalization, but a personalized approach should also be on the table (especially if it happens to be an operating table). Ultimately Green’s slip from one mode into the other can be forgiven, but it points once again to the need to be careful with different sorts of cyberspace language. And, of course, once Facebook and Siri know everything about us, it will no longer be necessary to make this point.

I.I.T. #The Second: “Literally Unbelievable”
The discussion of I.I.T. #1 went on longer than expected, so I’ll keep this one brief(er). Literally Unbelievable promises “Stories from The Onion as interpreted by Facebook,” and thus catalogues instances where Facebook users believed that The Onion’s satirical articles were not satirical. Some instances are pretty impressive, especially the one where The Onion seems to have fooled a congressman.

This points to an aspect of cyberspace that has been on mind for a very long time: credibility and reputation. Not being able to tell the difference between satirical news reporting and straight news reporting is indeed laughable. But, if some people cannot make that distinction, there is likely an exponentially greater number of people who cannot make the distinction between good and bad news reporting, or between logical and illogical opinion. While thinking the Onion discusses real events may make a reader look like an idiot, believing slander or deceit over honesty can shift their understanding of the world.

In print, television, and other traditional media, whose expense prevents one from putting their thoughts into the public domain on a whim, it is easier for readers to keep track of the credibility and reputation of various outlets. Online, things are trickier, and readers are more likely to mistake The Onion for The New York Times (or the Heritage Foundation, take your pick). I don’t mean to suggest that traditional media (or elitism) are simply better, but some aspects of the internet seem inevitably troubling this way.

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About Twelverton "TwelveOs" O'Shankley

There's not much to tell, frankly. I grew up in Seven Hills (the suburb of Brisbane Australia), my father Sevenworth O'Shankley made calculators and my mother ThreeGee Mobile-Telecommunications-O'Shankley was a radio tower. I think I'll leave it at that because personal branding is hard.
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