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“Cuz We Need a Little Controversy:” A Response, Part 2

Posted Oct 12 2010 6:42am

After what has seemed like an eternity, I am finally back in the world of computers, electronic communication, blogging…and Macbooks. I have to say, that last one feels especially good.

But while I was gone, apparently the blogworld was turned upside-down and rocked with controversy over a certain article that appeared in a popular fashion magazine. I’m not going to link to the article because I’m sure most people have read it by now and honestly, I don’t actually want to drive any more traffic to their site. Suffice it to say that the piece was slanted, mean-spirited, and completely unproductive in the way that it was written. But, believe it or not, I don’t want to talk about that. Instead, I want to talk about The Aftermath, and the conversations that I wish I were seeing more of around the healthy living blogworld, now that emotions have died down and people are able to think more clearly.

This past week, I have been talking with Alex about our personal reactions to the Marie Claire article. Quite frankly, if you look beyond the hurt feelings and character attacks, the article does have a layer of truth. Not only that, but it brings up some pretty important points on blogger responsibility and the potential consequences of our words. So while there have been many posts and reactions to the article written already (some, I would argue, are much more productive than others), we’ve both decided to share our own thoughts on the issue. Not because we want to sound like a broken record, but rather to serve as a call to action to bloggers out there — no matter what your niche — to take a step back, reflect, and think about how this is an opportunity for growth. Alex has done a great job getting the conversation started with her post this morning. If you haven’t read it yet, I encourage you to stop reading my blog (seriously!) and go over to I Eat Asphalt to read Part 1 ; then continue the conversation back here.

The internet is a wonderful, crazy thing. Anyone can get behind a computer, start up a blog and share their experiences with the world. Reading and writing blogs can allow us to learn from the experiences of people just like us, form relationships, start great discussions, and get inspired. But blogging can have a dark side too. Because literally anyone can pass themselves off as an expert, regardless of their credentials. Whether a person writes with authority, appears to have a lot of experience with a certain issue, or is simply in a position of admiration due to the popularity of their site, their words can easily become seen as the truth. Unfortunately, whether intentional or not, this “truth” can sometimes be different from what experts recommend.

Now this is where the issue becomes tricky. Just because someone is a licensed, credentialed expert, doesn’t necessarily mean they’re always right. We all know that experts sometimes get it wrong, and even the best and brightest scientists don’t always agree. But does that mean they shouldn’t at least be consulted? That just because we have first-hand experience in something, we know just as much (if not more) than individuals who spend their lives researching in a particular field? Articles in peer-reviewed journals (like JAMA ) and sites maintained by recognized experts such as CDC, ADA , and ASCM , undergo rigorous review before being published. These sites contain a lot of FREE health information…information where fact has been clearly separated from fiction, so the reader doesn’t have to sort it out for himself.

Now, I know the counter-argument to this. People don’t go to blogs for expert advice. People go to find out what works for real people; people just like them. And I would agree with that…to an extent. When you are successful with something — whether it be weight loss, running, or maintaining a well-balanced, healthy life — you become an expert in a reader’s eyes, particularly one with less experience than you. You know first-hand what it’s like to lose 100 pounds, run a marathon, or eat healthy on a budget. That experience is valuable, and people can certainly learn from it. That is one one of the great things about having a blog — it can be a wonderful way of sharing experiences and lessons learned with others. However, the danger comes when a person who has experience, but not the recognized expertise, passes off health-related information and advice as fact. I think we need to all be more careful about this. Even if you don’t mean for a reader to take your words as gospel, I strongly believe that there needs to be a better awareness that this can happen. And just saying “this is what worked for me” may not be enough. Comparing what you recommend with what the experts say (whether you agree or not), finding a recognized source to cite, or simply not posting information that is outside your area of expertise are all ways to avoid these issues from happening.

I’m not trying to imply that bloggers are maliciously sitting behind their computers, scheming up posts as a way to lead their minions readers astray. Obviously there are some pretty awful websites out there, but I believe that most individuals who blog within this niche are doing so with pure intentions, because they want to influence and inspire other individuals. But unfortunately, sometimes even the purest intentions can have negative consequences.

For example — I live in the tiny, proud state of Rhode Island. In our little state, all the hospitals operate under one system. Recently the RI hospital system adopted a smoke-free campus policy, which means that all hospitals in the state are completely, 100% smoke-free. No designated smoking rooms or little smoking huts outside. If you are on hospital property, you are not allowed to smoke. Period. It goes without saying that I think this is a wonderful policy. Hospitals should be leaders when it comes to health care, and not allowing patients and employees to smoke on campus sends a strong message about the dangers of smoking and exposure to second-hand smoke.

“So where is she going with this?” you ask. Well, I happen to live near one of these hospitals. In fact, it’s situated right, smack in the middle of my neighborhood. And everyday when I walk my pup, I see employees and patients outside smoking. Because if they cross the street, they are no longer on hospital property…and therefore allowed to smoke. But crossing the street also puts them right in front of someone’s house, where they often stand, smoke their cigarette, and throw the butt in the nearest yard. Not only are they exposing anyone who happens to be outside on that property to second-hand smoke, but they are also littering.

Does this mean that I think the policy should be abolished? That it’s doing more harm than good? Absolutely not. I realize that the overall benefit of not allowing smoking on/near a hospital greatly outweighs the little bit of harm that might have come as a result. But, I also believe that this doesn’t mean the hospital should look the other way, believing their duty to be done. Regardless of whether the hospital has already done something to discourage employees from smoking in/near people’s yards, it clearly could use some improvement. No, I don’t think the hospital can actually control individual behavior, and they certainly can’t force people to do something. But, when a policy that the hospital has created ends up creating another problem, I believe it is the hospital’s responsibility to look at that problem and work at improving it.

I think the same applies to the blogging world. Even if you didn’t mean for your words and actions to be interpreted in a certain way, it doesn’t mean you should feel completely removed from all responsibility when/if they are. I know we can’t control our readers, and everyone needs to be responsible for their own actions to a certain extent. But does individual responsibility mean that we can’t keep looking for ways to grow and improve? That we can’t apply just a little bit of self-reflection and admit that maybe we had a little part to play in the problem? I would argue that it does not. We can always work to improve ourselves — to be better people, better examples, better bloggers.

It is worth noting that I say all this with my own blog in mind. If the Marie Claire controversy has taught me anything, it’s as Alex said: blogger beware. I would hate for something that I wrote on this little blog of mine to be mis-interpreted, or to lead someone down a destructive path. But I’m human, and I’m sure I’ve made mistakes. Even though I have a graduate degree in public health, and many years of experience in competing in races and leading teams, there may have been times where I’ve given advice that I have no business writing. Or posted something because it’s second-nature to me without taking a step-back and realizing that just because it’s something I’ve always done, doesn’t mean it’s something actually recommended for most people. Personally, I am using this as an opportunity to reflect and make my blog better. Maybe it’s easy for me to say, since I wasn’t personally attacked in the article. But you tell me what you think is more productive — simply going on the defensive and focusing on how the blogging community was wrongly portrayed, or accepting responsibility that for all the good that comes from the blogging community, there is a potential for harm, and opening up an honest dialogue about what we can do to make sure that doesn’t happen.

I’d love to hear your thoughts about these posts in general, and about what responsible blogging actually looks like. I know both Alex and I have focused more on what we believe bloggers shouldn’t do, but what about the flip-side of the issue? Do you think there are (or should be) specific guidelines bloggers should abide by when they post? And how do we really make that divide between expert, and just experienced?

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