Sunkyo Kwon

Bad habits are hard to break. And bad habits are almost 
incorrigible if exercised on the Internet. A well-known
Net phenomenon are flame wars, e.g. an individual starts
sending an offensive posting to a Usenet newsgroup
or an email discussion forum, and others pick it up.
"Discussion" gets more and more out of hand and off-topic,
sometimes up to the point of destroying a healthy discussion
group. This flame war may also overspill to other forums, 
wasting considerable bandwidth and endangering the existence
of even more groups. The vulnerability of subgroups on the 
Net has been documented by the influence that single 
individuals can exert to shape and/or distract
the nature of interwoven Internet subgroups.

This is but one example that demonstrates the power of the
Internet which can be used for good or for bad. The Internet
itself is only a medium, it is up to the individual user how
to take adavantage of it. A main function of Internet resources
consists of rapid dissemination of information and discussion.
This characteristic presents one of its biggest potentials and
also one of its major problems. Collaborative ventures can bloom,
but destructive tendencies can just as well proliferate in
an Ionescian fashion of progredient decay.

For instance, commercial enterprises have discovered the feature
of the Internet to rapidly expose a large number of Internetters
to information. As a consequence, we find ourselves more and
more confronted with unwanted advertisements, either sent to
existing groups or disguised as private emails. Once you are
on a "list of marketing targets", there is rarely a way out,
except by changing your email address. The signal-to-noise ratio
becomes extremely unbalanced and presents a major hazard to 
the Internet image. The laws of marketing are incompatible
with the unwritten regulations of the Internet.

However, not all commercial ventures on the Net can be
stereotyped as unconstructive. Particularly the Internet
presence of health-related commercial (and non-profit)
health service providers in the non-instrusive form of
offerings on the World Wide Web (WWW) seems to be a promising 
way to provide additional information on available services.
Telemarketing and teleshopping for services are potential
ways to inform the prospective health service user of
alternatives that he or she may otherwise have been
unaware of. Also, there are special interest groups that
are expressis verbis designed to sell material and 
immaterial products and services of the health industry. 
Such channels -- within clearly defined borders --
incite and reinforce competition, which in turn acts
as an incentive to the industry to improve the quality
of their products.

Of course, commercial Internet information is usually
exaggerated, and asks for concerted efforts for consumer
protection. That is, there need to be independent
clearinghouses and coordinating agents that make health
services presented on the Internet understandable, that
compare, and that warn against bad practice.

Once the boundaries of health services marketing are
clearly defined and independent agents of quality control
established in the field, the prospects for good service
delivery catalyzed by the medium Internet are most positive.
Until then, the wild growth of profit-makers on the Net
seems utterly unproductive.

Quality control in the health sciences by means of Internet
usage now is at a turning point. While information 
dissemination and communication has once been one of the 
major surplus values of the Net, the still-increasing
number of services available for and from science has led
to additional information overflow that is just as hard to
come by as the incessantly growing number of the print media.
The creative and cooperative potentials of Internet usage
for researchers are still not exhausted. However, it seems
to be a good time now to channel and institutionalize 
certain Internet functions, that have survived the test of
time. Here are some examples: (1) Proliferation and support
for online journals, (2) open-peer review on the Internet,
(3) WWW presence of research projects for ready access to
timely information about ongoing studies.

Lastly, I would like to emphasize a potential for quality
control of research qua the Internet that has been
theoretically possible even before emergence of the WWW
in 1992, but that seems suitable now at this time when
being a scientist and being ignorant of "the Net" as a
research tool to be taken as seriously as, say, a popular
statistics software package. It needs to be encouraged
to present more interim results of ongoing research in
chats (email discussion forums, newsgroups, maybe 
interactive web sites, irc and videoconference meetings).
The format that the "basic Internet tools", e.g. email
and newsgroups, ask for is strictly text-based and 
restricted in depth and breadth. This mode calls for
using concise and precise language, to concentrate to
the essentials, while readily allowing status quo
presentations in any stage of the research process,
but without the peer pressure and (time and personnel)
resource depletion involved in conference presentations
and publications.

To summarize: The Internet itself is neither good 
nor bad. It offers features that are not available 
otherwise. It needs to be recognized that the potent 
information dissemination potentials can act as 
quality control agents if used prudently. It is up to 
every single Internet user: To boost or to block.