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Googling your illness, learning cosmetic science from an online forum, collaborative learning and other modern phenomenon.

September 4, 2016

I was listening to a discussion about googling your symptoms on the radio between a doctor and the presenter.  Rather than dismiss Googling your symptoms and self-diagnosing something the Doctor in question celebrated it.  She made a great point, that the person most invested in their health is the patient, they feel what they feel, live how they live and have a personal insight that will forever elude the Doctor.  But then she said the best outcomes she’s experienced are when the patient comes in with a mind that is still very much open to consultation, a mind that is aware of the pitfalls of cognitive bias, a mind that recognises the value of an un-attached appraisal of the situation – especially when that ‘other’ mind has professional qualifications and experience in this field.

Next I heard another radio interview this week with a university lecturer who was discussing how, these days students challenge the lecturers more and take a more collaborative approach to learning.  He mentioned that it has become common for students to pitch their ideas and to shape the lectures and even the direction of what is taught and that the lecturer has gone from being the un-touchable expert on a pedestal to being part of the process.   He felt this was a very good thing, a progression on the old days when lecturer/ student relationships were often more dictatorial (especially at first Degree level) and I’d have to agree just as long as the students recognised and respected at least on one level the value of the lecturers perspective and experience. Something I’m sure most do given their investment in the course.

Lastly this week I found myself reflecting on the way that online forums and blogs contribute to the ideas exchange in cosmetic science.  I see these discussions take place, often cooperatively but sometimes quite prescriptive (the person answering often can’t help but tell the questioner exactly how to solve their particular problem). I’ve been feeling increasingly uncomfortable with the trajectory these discussions seem to take and now, with the above two scenarios providing context I can see more clearly why.

With both the doctor/ patient and the student/lecturer relationship examples advancement in technology and changes in social norms (we no longer tend to just look up to ‘authority’ because we should) have led to more open and consultative dialogue between the two parties.  In many ways the communication has become more natural and I can really see the benefits of that.  But what we still have in both these scenarios are personal relationships conducted in an organised environment (University or Doctors surgery) with a reasonable understanding of what it has taken for each party to get there (qualifications, dedication, time etc).  The communication takes place around a specific idea, project or outcome and the context is given due consideration.

What I see (from my perspective) on cosmetic science forums is a mixture of interactions attracting many voices with different background experience and qualifications in an environment that has required very little effort or investment to join.  So, we have a virtual ‘free-for-all’ that attracts a mixed bunch of folks, some of whom just dip their toes in when they have a very specific issue to discuss and participate very little in anything else and others who set up a more permanent resident there answering whatever comes along (or much of it).  What worries me about this is the way that these online groups can create the illusion of a participant being an expert just by the nature of their participation – answer lots of questions, gain lots of kudos for answering the questions.  The audience shifts so there are always fresh eyes who can look over past comments and see which member dominates the answer so as to deduce who is the most experienced or valuable.  But this can be a false reality.  How can we be sure that the answers given are based on the answerer personal experience and experimentation?  Is the loudest voice the best?  What real-time qualifications do the questioners have in relation to your question?  How relevant is the answer to your unique situation? Did the answerer seek more context before answering?  Is the wider context even necessary?   Is there any evidence of ‘expert creep’ happening – I classify this as when someone who has a long history in making one area of cosmetics only starts talking authoritatively on another, completely unrelated issue without first qualifying their level of experience.  So many questions…

And after being an internet voice for the last 9 years myself  I know all too well how easy it is to become revered or elevated to God like status. I’m always trying to shake off the devotees, not least because much of the time I’ve got no idea where I’m going until I get there!

So am I just a whiney whiner (I charge for my advice, well not always but that is my business model) or do I have a point.

Well I wouldn’t be writing this if I felt I was just whining but I do wish to acknowledge that just like the doctors who initially hated google or the lecturers who felt like throwing the chalk board wiper at the know-it-all students I have had my ‘throw-my-dummy-out-of-the-pram’ moment.  BUT I recognise that was just me reacting to the change, for seeing the bad before the good – you know, like many of us do when faced with something they don’t understand. I’ve since seen the light so to speak!   Forums are just one of the many ways we communicate now and their lack of rules and framework do contribute to their free-flowing nature. I acknowledge that there is no reason that these forums  can’t be good good or even better than what we had before – they are certainly more equitable in many ways.  Being able to go onto a forum and ask questions for free would feel good if I was looking for answers on something.  Who doesn’t like free stuff!

So what is the down side?  Where’s the catch?

Well in my mind it’s one of proximity,  contract and validation.

There is a big difference between a mutually invested one-on-one relationship and a group chat – that’s the proximity.  One doesn’t have to be in the same room to be close, more one has to be in the same head space – on the same page and not just transactionally, I’m talking solidly invested in it – project wise.

The contract is the framework in which the parties operate.  In the lecturer/ student or doctor patient framework there is the security of knowing the backgrounds of each participant, what they are trying to achieve and why.  Where the information they are offering is coming from, it’s limits and how it might be tested.

Finally the validation, the chance to test the ideas, collaborate further, confirm what worked and what didn’t and discuss all of that with the sole agenda of coming to a workable conclusion.

Forums are going to continue to be part of our cosmetic science world and I absolutely do see the use of them, especially if participants go in with their eyes open to the possibility that they may, at times get caught up in a case of ‘the blind leading the blind’ and in others be offered lots of well-meaning but not strictly relevant or applicable advice.

So how I’d approach the online forum environment is to see it as a party,  you can meet lots of good people, have a few little conversations and enjoy a very good time but the real business of working these new contacts should come later in a more sober environment where the full glory of your problem/ project can be discussed, evaluated and understood.   People skim read, jump to conclusions and jump in too quickly in the heat of the moment and that can cost time, money and the sanity of the questioner who can sometimes be left feeling unsure as to whom to trust – a hard call when you really don’t know anyone.

I do hope you guys continue to enjoy your online relationships (including the one you have with my blog) and I also hope that they provide you with the love, support and ideas you need to move your projects onwards and upwards.  But I also hope you remember that it is easy to be a keyboard warrior and a whole lot harder to back that up in a commercial laboratory environment and that never looks likely to change. Oh and don’t forget that cosmetic science is ‘applied’ and is often subjective so that is rarely only one answer to a question and that’s what makes it all magic.

Amanda x



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