The Internet has made nearly everything learnable. Smart people using the Internet can teach us many things. A vast, highly accessible platform for communication, coupled with an expert’s talent for condensing complex information, establishes beacons for a world mired in obfuscation, complexity, and misinformation.
Lets look at doctors, for example. Physicians have the power to teach both patients and students of medicine. One body of pupils learns to treat the needs of others while the patient learns to treat the needs of the self. On the Internet, a physician’s ability to share his or her rare knowledge is unparalleled. Both med students and patients are turning to the Internet for answers.
Our world is changed. The permutation of analog data and digital access is absolute; in a short time there will be few who recall an inability to draw from an infinite well of opinion and fact at the moment an impulse draws their focus. We won’t remember a time when we couldn’t Facebook a question and get a ‘like’ or two. Our reliance on our network to consider the problems we face is primeval. Even cavemen had tribal council. But never before has it been so easy to ask. Never has the wisdom of the crowds been so present in interpreting even the most banal pontifications. Dinner selection: Yelp. Movie selection: Rotten Tomatoes. Lasik surgery selection: Farmville Ads. We now forge our decisions through social pondering.
Websites like WikiAnswers and Sharecare (client), and features like Linked In Answers and Facebook Questions are popping up all over the Internet. For some people, entering vague keywords into Google and WebMD is an unrewarding process. The search results can be unwieldy and the answers can come from just about anywhere. On Linked In, you can see who is answering your questions, and if they’re in your network, there is a higher probability that you’ll trust their answer over something you read through Yahoo answers or on Wikipedia. This is truer with health related questions. Sharecare will sometimes even give you answers from licensed medical professionals, who dispense their advice with caveats for your protection.
Pharmaceutical and beauty companies alike are employing physicians’ world-over to answer questions on online forums, advise tweet-chats, and write expert opinions in blog posts. Physicians need to be aware that not only are their patients getting information about their health needs on the internet, they’re starting to expect medical advice via social networks. If I can find everything else I’ve ever wanted to know about the world around me through questioning my social networks and the tools that expand them, why can’t I learn what to take for this lump? Well, there are many reasons why I can’t, but the fact that I’m even asking represents a change in the way I think about learning.
This trend isn’t going away, because if you haven’t realized, asking the network is a behavior we were born with. Instead of neglecting the digital clamor, purveyors of answers would do better to listen—even if they intend to never respond. Doctors: people will listen to your caution, but only if you warn them. Make sure people know it takes testing and observation to make a diagnosis. Make sure patients aren’t trampling on the sensitivity of your consideration by taking the articles they encounter online to heart. People will always ask questions. Better for you to be there to answer them than not.