The language of snoring

What do you think about snoring? It turns out your views are likely to depend on whether or not you’ve Googled it.

For my PhD research I analysed the language people used to describe snoring before and after they searched for information online. According to the results, people used far more medical language to describe snoring after looking up information online, and their change in language was directly related to the websites that came up in their internet search.

I wanted to see whether searching the internet for information changed the way people spoke about snoring. I asked my research volunteers to tell me what they knew about snoring, both before and after completing an online search, and I analysed their language, as well as analysing which web pages they visited and what kind of language those pages used.

The results showed people were more likely to talk about snoring as a medical issue after completing an online search.

So why is this important?

People use online searches to find information on everything from what café they should buy coffee to whether they should see a doctor. The information provided by online searches can, therefore, have a significant impact on people’s lives.

In the case of snoring, the information available in online searches portrayed snoring as a medical issue, particularly in relation to obstructive sleep apnoea. It also means that stereotypes to do with the relationship between snoring and age, gender and obesity have become more entrenched, which could affect people’s approach to health.

Take, for example, people who are overweight. They are often forced to get tested for obstructive sleep apnoea simply because they are overweight, even though people of a lower weight can have sleep apnoea too and might suffer with it for much longer because their doctor associates this condition with being overweight.

Access to help can be much harder if you don’t fit the entrenched stereotype, especially when that stereotype has become part of the machinery of medicine.

The real-world perception of snoring also affects driving regulations, workplace safety, and access to public health funding for treatment services.

The effects of snoring are very relevant in several industries, particularly transportation and aviation. If most people are receiving information that snoring is a medical issue, this will affect the creation of policies and procedures in these industries.

But why does an online search so drastically change the way people talk about snoring?

This is because, as with all online searches, the mechanisms built into online search engines amplify and entrench ideas over time. In the case of snoring, searchers have spent more time on pages discussing snoring and medical issues, which means those pages appear more relevant to the search-engine algorithm, and thus feature much sooner in search results than pages that don’t link snoring and medical conditions.

While it isn’t “good” or “bad” for people to see snoring in a more medical light, it’s important to understand that, because of the way search engines work, visiting a site found on the first page of a Google search makes it more likely that a subsequent searcher will be presented with the same information.

This makes it really hard to find different information and means that certain ideas become “locked in”—like snoring being a medical problem.

To help make sure the information available to people about snoring is balanced and relevant, I am helping develop policies and procedures in the fatigue-risk management sector, using the findings from this study to help direct the way information is selected to support these policies.

It is important policy-makers and regulators understand that, because of the way the internet works, there is a tendency for ideas that perform well on the internet to become entrenched and gain a momentum that makes them hard to avoid, regardless of their truth.

The method I developed defines a “concept space” to create a two-dimensional map. I was interested in how much medical language was used versus lay language, which formed a vertical axis, and how much people referenced snoring vs obstructive sleep apnoea, which formed a horizontal axis.

Each web page encountered during the internet search could therefore be plotted somewhere on the map, and I marked each position using spheres to denote how much attention each page captured in that search.

The end result looked like a planetary system tracking a path that represents the sequence of the web pages encountered during the search. Importantly, the language used by the person to describe snoring both before and after the search is also plotted, and the change in position within the concept space delineated by the map visually represents the direction and degree of shift.

I’m hoping this analysis method can also be used in other areas, such as in gender issues, other health issues and environmental issues.

Bryn Sparks is also a sleep physiologist with the Sleep Well Clinic.

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