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Future Facebook users' notifications might not just be limited to Farmville requests and recently tagged photos from your sister-in-law's baby shower: according to a recent article in Salon, researchers are developing technology that would allow users to determine their risk of STI infection via Facebook friends' status updates. Such an app could potentially decrease the rate of STI transmission among social circles that double as known clusters of infection, as well as bring the process of "poking" a Facebook friend to a whole new level.
Although Facebook might seem like an unlikely place to keep yourself abreast of your friends' most recent herpes flare-ups, Dr. Peter Leone, a professor of medicine at the University of North Carolina's Center for Infectious Disease, predicts that social networking sites could assist researchers in the fight against increasing STI transmission rates in certain social circles. Because real-life social networks are proven to be reliable predictors of STI risk, Facebook is the next logical step for tracking and controlling transmission rates, particularly among friends who engage in the same high-risk behavior/tend to sleep with the same people. In other words, who you hang out with has some bearing on your own chances of contracting an STI, so it follows that that would apply to who you hang out with in Computer World as well.
Of course, an app that informs your friends that they should get tested because of that one time you had drunk, semi-protected sex with a Senor Frog's bartender raises some pretty daunting privacy concerns. However, Leone's approach pretty cleverly deviates from from public health officials' traditional approach to controlling STI transmission: instead of targeting a specific, at-risk demographic (for instance, African-American men who have sex with men), or the former sexual partners of an infected person, Leone's model is more broadly aimed at different social circles. As Leone points out:
"People think that you have to be directly connected to someone, and I think of it as a population-level effect. It would be no different from someone who goes to a picnic and gets food poisoning. We’re concerned about everyone that was at that picnic.”
To mix metaphors a bit here: in the future, perhaps we will be able to use Facebook to figure out who gave us food poisoning at the group sex picnic. For now, though, we should just continue to stay smart, stay safe, and avoid eating that skeevy-looking pasta salad that's been sitting out in the sun for three hours.