Mara Gulens
October 20

Social Media is the Message: Web 2.0 has changed the way the public talks about health
UToronto Medicine

Prof. Jennifer Keelan has had it with print. She’s also had it with TV and the phone. That’s because in the age of social media, public health can no longer be communicated—or gauged—with just the traditional tools.

“The age of web 2.0 is here,” says the Assistant Professor at U of T’s Dalla Lana School of Public Health. “People want to access useful information, share their health experiences, rage, rant and interact with health information in a way that traditional media just doesn’t support. If public health professionals don’t provide them with those platforms, then other people will.”

Or, Keelan corrects herself, other people already do. Type “vaccination” into Google, she says. (Keelan’s main area of interest is immunization policy and the public understanding of science). Most of the top hits lead to professional-looking anti-immunization sites. No surprise, then, that Keelan’s YouTube study on public health was the first of its kind. “If you wanted to know what the anti-vaccinationists were thinking you had to go on YouTube,” she says.

That led to a 2008 look at the most popular social networking site of the time, MySpace, and how anti-vaccination groups were using it to disseminate alternative health messaging. “Web 2.0 platforms are particularly powerful when it comes to sharing or repurposing information,” or, on occasion, misinformation, she says.

Just over two years ago, Keelan and her team started a series of studies on Second Life, a virtual world that not only has “all this mash of communication enabled in one platform,” but also the added virtual experience of an avatar going through specific scenarios. Here, she looked at how focus groups in Second Life reacted to a multi-faceted Centers for Disease Control immunization campaign.

Keelan proposes that once technology and bandwidth get up to speed, much more of what we do could use avatars in 3D worlds. “It has the interactivity of social media, but also the experiential component that’s missing from usual one-channel government or authority-to-consumer communications strategies,” she says.

Keelan’s findings already give her a hunch about the potential advantages of communicating health information in a virtual setting. For example, instead of telling people to do breast exams, she says, they could enter a virtual clinic and walk their avatar through self-exams. If scheduled for surgery, patients could take themselves through a scenario of what it’s like, practise being a patient and ask questions.

“You have the potential to decrease anxiety about an experience if you can experience it first virtually before you do so in the real world,” says Keelan, who is interested in how practising behaviours virtually translates into real life. Indeed, knowing how to better navigate the healthcare system and understand the environment could potentially eliminate errors.

But first we must better understand how individuals take information, incorporate it with their own life experiences and repurpose it, whether through blogging, text, imagery, or creating video or mash-ups. “My research agenda is really honing in on this repurposing of health information, of the mixing up of personal and anecdotal information with more traditional health information,” she says.

If the medium is the message, and the medium is social, then the message can’t be controlled in traditional ways. So Keelan is also working at developing strategies for government on how to plan for reactions and responses, which may be as important as metrics. “All of these things are poorly understood,” she says. “We’re trying to create the rules of engagement.”

[Originally published on: UToronto Medicine

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