It isn't difficult to see that the main impact of social
media penetration in our culture is an epidemic of oversharing. Americans under the age of 25
have a very different approach to privacy than, say, your average
30 year-old, and feel weirdly comfortable sharing details of their
private lives. E-mail is considered to be outlandishly
formal, large scale sharing over social networks and texting is
commonplace, and the barriers between personal and institutional
communication are nearly non-existent.
This has led, predictably, to mass sharing of medical
information online — even two years ago, news organizations were reporting on the rise
of "e-patients" who talk to medical experts and amongst
themselves in order to obtain treatment, piece of mind and/or the
thrill of exposure.
Suddenly, there is widespread information about adverse outcomes
and side effects, in every search that someone does for any
medicine or medical device. But perhaps the most interesting
aspect of this is the fact that Big Data (the catch-all often used
to discuss the capture and use of large information about
individual consumers) may soon be able to incorporate all of this
self-shared medical data into their profiles, along with the facial recognition information soon to be
culled by Facebook, and dozens of other unusual sources.
Ironically, this could lead to something wonderful, if properly
anonymized — a database that could help analyze and
predict disease behavior. In fact, Google is already doing
something on a much smaller scale here.
But that presumes that the information can be collected in
this manner, that people are comfortable with it, and that it will
really be anonymized. If the past is any indication, the
first stages of this process are likely to involve HIPAA
violations, wailing and gnashing of teeth, and public outrage.
But given the slow transformation of attitudes taking place
across the generations, the question may not be whether we will we
find ourselves living in a science fiction world where everything
about us, including our health and genetic makeup, is widely
accessible, but when. For that reason, everyone who works in
the life sciences owes it to themselves to be an amateur futurist,
and to think about the ways in which ever more complex social
interaction across electronic networks may impact their business,
and the lives of their ultimate consumers.
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