The web is buzzing with discussion of the case of Deborah Copaken Kogan, a writer and Financial Times columnist who discovered—via Facebook—that her child had a rare and dangerous disease. Kogan’s story began when her four-year-old son developed a stubborn rash, followed by a fever and intense swelling. After Kogan began to post photos of her sick child on Facebook, she received a panicked phone call from a former neighbor who had seen the photos. “You have to get to the hospital,” the neighbor warned. “Now.” The neighbor had accurately guessed that Kogan’s son was suffering from Kawasaki disease, a potentially fatal disorder that causes inflammation in the walls of the arteries, including those around the heart. Kogan credits Facebook with saving her son’s life. Can online social networks really be used as diagnostic tools, or is this just hype?
In recent years, the medical community has become increasingly interested in the possible uses of social networking. In 2008, an editorial in Nature Biotechnology offered a largely positive assessment of PatientsLikeMe—a site where patients discuss their medical conditions and share health data. After the editorial was published, company officials, along with a pediatrics professor at