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Interwebology: The ugly Internet

Amy Plachta | Interrobang | Lifestyles | January 18th, 2010

The Internet is a wonderful buffer. It can promote unparalleled honesty protected by the safety of perceived anonymity, or permit gross deception with minimal accountability for the exact same reason. But if a person chooses honesty, they can also expect bluntly truthful opinions from people who feel the Internet absolves them from the social obligation of courtesy.

Within the first few days of 2010 roughly 5,000 people had their resolutions laid out before them when they were booted from, a social networking site that asks for a little more than a just username and monthly fee.

The lion's share of the “fatties,” as founder Robert Hintze referred to them, came from the United States, with the UK taking second place and Canada coming in third. Members were encouraged to reapply when they'd lost their winter weight, and were even provided with recommendations for boot camps.

While the news may have been blunt, it shouldn't be surprising. Just over half of all Canadians over the age of 12 are either overweight or obese, with the highest rates occurring in the 55 to 64 year old demographic. In fact, the healthcare burden placed on society by obesity is now arguably greater than that created by smoking. Just below 17 per cent of Canadians in the same age group smoke, and it has been suggested that, because of obesity, young Canadians will actually have shorter lifespans than their parents.

In the United States obesity is even more common, with two thirds of adults being classified as either overweight or obese.

It is little wonder then that New Years resolutions, for many, revolve around weight loss and fitness, whether for health or purely aesthetic reasons. Unfortunately, a third of these resolutions will fail in the first month, and that percentage will rise to 75 per cent by the end of February.

The Internet seems to have decided that its users need improvement, and it is more than willing to help them. There are fitness-specific social networking sites all over the Internet, with founders ranging from fitness experts to time-strapped mothers. One of the newest is Phitter, Kirstie Alley's Twitter-style community where members can share progress, encouragement, hints, and tips in 140 characters or less.

For those looking to track their progress privately, there are numerous apps for cell phones, ranging from calorie consumption and use trackers to exercise recommendations. Alternately, for those seeking total public honesty, the Withings Wi-Fi Body Scale will send your weight to your cell phone, blog, and even post it on Twitter automatically when you step on it.

If supportive voyeurism sounds intimidating, imagine it under the analytical gaze of scientists. Researchers in Los Angeles are using muscle monitors to track the exertion of obese exercisers, and Pennington's Ingestive Behavior Laboratory in Louisiana employs cameras worn at all times by subjects to record food types and portion sizes. The studies serve the dual purpose of eliminating the inaccuracies of self-reported data, and finding out whether outside monitoring is in fact helpful to people trying to lose weight.

For some, the latter has already been shown. In their book Connected, Nicholas Christakis found behavioral correlations not only between people and their friends, but also people and their friends' friends. Even social connections spread out by several degrees still held sway in lifestyle factors, ranging from weight loss to smoking habits to divorce rates.

This certainly would seem to encourage finding a social group, even if it's entirely online, where connections are based on common goals and lifestyles. Productive behaviours are reinforced and spread through the networks almost virally, though with the risk of counterproductive behaviours derailing an entire network just as readily.

Even with minimal interaction, social behaviours are linked. When working out in a public gym instead of the privacy of one's own home, people tend to exercise more, with greater intensity and duration. Interestingly, there is no evidence of this being the result of a competitive nature. There is simply a social anomaly whereby human achievement thrives in groups.

The potential danger in public display, however, is public opinion. With many countries still lacking firm laws about Internet libel, information might not only be directly criticized, but also commented on elsewhere to degrees that push into defamation. While there have been a few cases where warrants have been served to web hosting services forcing the identification of bloggers who assumed their anonymity would be protected, the international nature of the Internet makes legal formalization difficult.

In a society that encourages unattainable perfection, self-improvement is a common trend, and the Internet can equally be a helper or hindrance. For those whose ambitions have manifested as resolutions, the advice offered by experts is to set firm goals that are both simple and achievable. But if social support is being relied upon, the best was to ensure it continues is to support the network in kind, because doing onto others is the best way to do onto yourself.
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