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Online forums can yield quality advice, research finds.

In my professional and personal life I have found great use for online forums. They are of immense value to geographically scattered but like-minded individuals focused on a specific area of human expertise. What we have, is a cognitive artefact that facilitates peer advising via the electronic medium.

That’s a rather fancy way of saying they are a good way of sharing information with other people who share a particular vocation or hobby. There are forums for all sorts of things, from dealing with acne, to recording rock bands, to political activism (there are plenty of those), along with mailing lists that have been functioning for aeons (those are online forums, too), as well as plenty purely for the entertainment of their members.

So this study regarding the efficacy of advice to be found in online forum discussions comes as no surprise.

NEW YORK (Reuters Health) – People who seek out general weight loss information via Internet forums will, more often than not, receive correct information, especially if the messages are posted on heavily trafficked Internet sites, results of a study suggest.

“Good weight loss advice can be given not only by trained professionals, but also by peers who participate in these Internet forums,” study co-author Dr. Kevin O. Hwang, of the University of Texas Medical School at Houston, told Reuters Health.

People tend to give each other good advice, and to enjoy sharing information. And that includes correcting information given by others. In fact, experience leads me to conclude that people enjoy correcting other people even more than they enjoy sharing good advice :>

In essence, every exchange between individuals in a forum setting is actually an exchange between individuals along with all other members following the conversation.Consequently, troublemakers, and erroneous information is filtered out in the communal intelligence. If information being posted is wrong, every additional person reading the exchange is another set of eyes and another opportunity to fact check.

Hwang and his team analyzed postings to 18 Internet weight loss forums during a one-month period in 2006.

Of the 3,368 initial messages posted to the Internet forums, 266 (nearly 8 percent) were requests for weight loss advice, the researchers report.

A total of 654 messages were posted in response to those requests, including 56 postings (8.6 percent) that contained erroneous advice. However, about a third (34 percent) of this misinformation was later corrected, the investigators observed.

Only 43 messages (6.6 percent) contained advice considered to be potentially harmful, such as encouragement to take over-the-counter weight loss aids that can cause potential harm. But more than a quarter (28 percent) of those messages were also later corrected, the investigators note.

The erroneous errors and harmful information were both more likely to be provided via low-activity Internet forums, which tended to have fewer messages posted, than via high-activity Internet forums. Also, the false information that was provided was more likely to concern medication-related issues, rather than general weight loss information, the report indicates.

According to Hwang, “Internet weight loss forums with more than 1,000 messages per month generally contain high quality advice, but medication-related advice is not as accurate as advice related to diet or exercise.”

SOURCE: American Journal of Medicine, July 2007.

Quality weight loss advice found online: study | Health | Reuters

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