Blogging Advice: When Should Speech Be Limited on the Internet?

5 years ago

Where is the line between telling your story (and leaving it out there for people to use and apply the lessons to their own life) and giving advice as an expert? It's probably something you haven't given a lot of thought to as your write your blog, but you should, because there are sometimes laws governing licenses needed in order to give advice.

The New York Times presented one example of this a while back with the story of Steve Cooksey, a nutrition blogger, who writes a blog about his specialized diet.  The Times reports that he received a letter from the North Carolina Board of Dietetics/Nutrition that outlined where he stepped over the line:

She said that “writing a blog on your beliefs” was fine. But Mr. Cooksey’s Dear Abby-style advice column was unlawful. So was a paid life-coaching service. 

Steve Cooksey's blog wasn't updated between May and August, and it has remained dormant since a single post in the summer right before the Times article came out.  His Twitter account also was dormant until recently when he sent out a handful of tweets.

 Photo Credit: Advice via Shutterstock

Whether or not he wins his case is beside the point.  The law in and of itself was created to protect the consumer as well as the advice giver.  Consumers need to feel confident that the advice they're reading comes from a place of knowledge, and advice givers need to be able to sleep easy at night knowing they are coming from a place of help and not harm.  But the law also disregards how personal experience can sometimes be a much stronger teacher than knowledge obtained in a classroom.

For instance, when we were going through infertility treatments, it was a nurse at the fertility clinic who taught me how to give myself an injection.  If I had only taken her advice, the injections would have been more painful than necessary.  Instead, I came home and took advice from other infertile women on the RESOLVE message boards who taught me how to make an injection less painful: how to ice my stomach beforehand or use heat to disperse the drugs afterward. 

It is easy to see the good and bad that can come from offering advice on the Internet or having a larger group monitoring the advice given to readers.  When it works, such as gaining valuable information in the been-there-done-that vein of infertility injections, it shows the power of crowdsourcing information, ensuring that people outside of large cities with their face-to-face support groups receive access to the same type of information passed woman to woman at a RESOLVE meeting.  

But it is also easy to see how snake oil salesmen can exploit the Internet, especially since the advice comes from a disembodied voice and the majority of our senses aren't utilized in taking in valuable intuitive information.  How many times have you read something online and incorporated it into your understanding of the world only to realize later that it has been disproven or comes from an unreliable source?

Steve Cooksey's advice seems pretty straightforward -- eat more meat and vegetables and avoid carbs.  In other words, eat like your caveman ancestors; a diet purported by some dieticians.  In the case of Cooksey, it is not clear how what he is saying -- simply because it is said without a license -- is dangerous since the Paleo diet has many followers even if it also has detractors like all diets. 

Advice on the Internet -- like all advice in life -- should not supersede the advice of your doctor who knows your specific dietary situation.  If people are using the Internet in a responsible manner, they will take what they learn from their reading online to a professional and check that the information they are receiving is good advice (something I did before icing my stomach for that first injection).  But do most of us use the Internet in that way?  I would say that 90% of the time, if it comes from a reliable source, I don't necessarily follow it up with an expert in my face-to-face world. 

Which begs the question, does our behaviour regarding reading and utilizing ensure the need for umbrella organizations policing what is placed online?  Or should the Internet be a free-for-all in regards to information?

And where is the line between simply saying what worked for you in a given situation and offering advice to others?

Obviously no one wants to be on the receiving end of a reprimand, but do you feel comforted or uneasy to think of umbrella organizations holding bloggers accountable for what they place on the Internet?  Do you offer advice on your blog, and do you do so with or without a license?

Melissa writes Stirrup Queens and Lost and Found. Her novel about blogging is Life from Scratch.

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