The Web Isn’t an Expert

Don't let the web operate on your leg.

I had minor knee surgery last week to repair a running injury.

As I lay in bed with my leg elevated, the pain got to the point where I wanted to take some of the pain medication subscribed by the surgeon.  However, my wife informed me that I had already taken ibuprofen and I couldn’t mix the two drugs.

“Really?” I asked.

So we did what millions of other people do – we looked it up on the Internet.  The site we landed on – one for nurses – said it was perfectly okay to mix the two drugs.  As I was about to take the pain medication, I realized that I had no idea who had written the article on the web site.  In fact, I’d never even heard of the web site until now.  How did I know if it was accurate?

Was I really going to base a medical decision on random information from a web site I knew nothing about?  So I finally did the sensible thing: I called my surgeon’s office.

They told me taking the pain medication was fine, but as I contemplated it later, I had been about to make what could have been a serious medical decision based on information I clearly hadn’t vetted.  Mixing medications can be dangerous – and even life threatening – and the only advice you should take on mixing medications should be from experts –  doctor and nurses.

And herein lies the danger of the Internet – it tempts you with easy access to information.

I often joke with friends: “It must be true – I read it on the Internet.”  But, unfortunately, reading something does make it seem more official.  We have become used to finding information on the web – new restaurants, word definitions, new concepts, book reviews, etc… that we forget not all of it is accurate (or unbiased).

But there’s no danger in a restaurant review that’s misguided – or biased.  The only penalty is a lousy meal.  But medical, financial, and legal advice are different matters.

We still need experts for many areas of our lives.  The wisdom of crowds isn’t always the best way to go.

There’s no doubt that user generated content – written, researched and collected by amateur crowds – can be a goldmine of riches.  It’s an excellent way to discover information about a new social network site or if the latest Hollywood movie is any good.  It’s great for seeing if a new mobile device works well or if a software package you’re interested in buying is bug free.  Companies can solicit feedback and use it for customer service.

But the web isn’t an organized information set – and it can be tricked and manipulated.  Google, for example, doesn’t spit back search results for the most accurate information – only the most popular.  And any SEO expert worth his salt can help you increase your organic search rankings by pulling out tricks and tips to game the Google search algorithm.

There is no better reality check on Web 2.0 than Andrew Keen.  His book “The Cult of the Amateur” was a must read back in 2007.  But now nearly three years later it’s difficult to completely dismiss Keen when he says things like:

“What the Web 2.0 revolution is really delivering is superficial observations of the world around us rather than deep analysis, shrill opinion rather than considered judgment.”

That’s too wide a blanket in my opinion.  Some content on the web is excellent – other content not so much.  That’s why it’s still important to consider the source of the information you digest.

It’s also important to remember that experts are experts for a reason.  The web is a great tool – but like any tool it needs to be used properly.

And that’s why I called my surgeon.

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