Don’t Despair, the Experts Are There

It’s a big mistake to confuse the state of the Web with the state of any Web business or niche.

You can see this for yourself the next time there’s a health scare in your family.

We all know about the problems at WebMD, drkoop.com, and all the other health sites out there. Many of the biggest ones have quietly been snapped up by rival sites, some in distant niches.

From all this you may conclude that there is little help for your troubled family online. That would be wrong.

Do a Google search combining a drug and a symptom. Any drug and symptom will do, but you’ll get the best results here if you look at mental health, where there is always more controversy and ambiguity.

What you’ll find is that the Web, like the Civil War, is in 10,000 places. People are discussing the efficacy of medicines at general sites such as About.com, at advocacy sites of all sorts, at research centers, at education sites, and on free home pages.

Take, for example, a condition I admitted to long ago — attention deficit disorder. Dr. Robert Hsiung at the University of Chicago runs one of the more interesting and active sites I found concerning this subject. Dr-bob.org opens with a silly graphic of an electrical plug entering the doctor’s head, a psychiatrist joke running where the page address would normally go, and strains of the Beatles’ “Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da.” But that’s not how most people get there.

The heart of the site is inside, where doctors discuss real patients, case histories, and drug interactions and where they can offer virtual “second opinions.”

Hsiung has nothing in common with Koop. He’s not building a supersite, and he’s not after the big money. He’s simply using the Web to serve his specialty — putting doctors, patients, and families together; working things out; and publishing the lessons for others.

The same thing is happening in other specialties. Experts in various disciplines are taking on the task of building community, without a preconceived agenda, and drawing detailed discussions on their topics of choice.

There is a profound lesson here. Distinct differences exist among discussion, debate, community, and commerce. Whenever a vendor, a store, an advocate, or a Web community tries to turn a problem into a profit, it may lack the credibility of the true expert. Someone who, without an agenda, offers honest interaction will (with modern search engines) be found and attract what the rest of us call “the market.”

When this happens those who only chase dollars may say that nothing is happening and the business doesn’t exist. I hope you’ve learned today that nothing could be further from the truth.

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