November 25th, 2008

Is Your Search Making You Feel Ill?

Today’s New York Times has an interesting article about a recent research study by Microsoft on the prevalence of Cyberchondria. That’s when searching the internet for your symptoms leads you to believe you’ve got a terrible medical condition.

As the article notes:

They found that Web searches for things like headache and chest pain were just as likely or more likely to lead people to pages describing serious conditions as benign ones, even though the serious illnesses are much more rare.

For example, there were just as many results that linked headaches with brain tumors as with caffeine withdrawal, although the chance of having a brain tumor is infinitesimally small.

This illustrates a very important point about the internet. We often think that because the internet is open to all, it’s actually a good mirror of the real world. But it’s not.

Putting something up on the internet requires effort and time. That typically means there is usually some level of passion behind everything you see on the web. That passion can be a desire for stardom, the requirements of a paycheck, an intense ideological agenda, or a deep personal interest. That leads to biases about what gets posted. Brain tumors are URGENT! And posters may feel an intense desire to spread knowledge about such a deadly disease. Caffeine withdrawal lacks that emotional punch.

This type of bias doesn’t just affect medical information on the internet. It can, and does, touch just about every topic. That’s why you’ll always see more conspiracy theories online than conspiracy-debunking websites. (There just aren’t that many conspiracy-debunking fanatics out there who are willing to stay up all night proving boring, everyday truths.)

For one humorous example, a blogger in February 2007 discovered that the most commonly cited resource in Wikipedia is The Official Pokemon Handbook. Obviously Pokemon fans are devoted and frequently on the internet.

Why is this important? If you are using the internet to do any kind of research, you need to bear in mind that there are going to be great disparities between what you see posted online and reality. Remember: the internet will probably never be a true representation of reality.

But most media are silently biased by the requirements of the form. Anyone looking for a clumsy, poorly dressed person with bad teeth on television has to have a lot of patience. Ugly Betty’s only on once a week.

– Erin


Comment from Barb Grim
Time January 6, 2009 at 4:34 am

Thanks Erin,
Many thanks for this all important bit of information,and I agree with you that is quite true about Ugly Betty….

Comment from RandyLynn Herndon
Time January 11, 2009 at 8:57 pm

Hi Erin,
Thanks for clarifying the how to use Wikipedia. I had an instructor say that it would not be accepted as a source, and I understand why. But I like the way you simplified the answer. Also, I did exactly what you suggest, and it works great.
Thank you,

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