If you had to guess what type of site could grow its visitor base by 349% in 2007, what would it be? Some fashionable social network? Some free Web 2.0 app? I would have guessed ICanHasCheezburger.com, but then, I only know my own browsing habits.
Of course, we'd all be wrong. The fastest growing web property, according to comScore, is EverydayHealth.com: a health-oriented community site moderated by a group of 20 physicians. The company that operates it, Waterfront Media, is no stranger to runaway hits; it was the progenitor of the South Beach Diet, the Sonoma Diet, and a handful of other health and wellness franchises. But EverydayHealth is different: it serves as a kind of experiment, seeking to socialize the the old support system — friends, family, doctors — in the online space. It doesn't mean to replace these people; when posts or discussions indicate that a user needs real medical attention, the site has ways of flagging them for trained healthcare moderators to respond. But it's a supplement to the old support system, and as such, it's an interesting phenomenon.
The site's approach eschews the role of health encyclopedia — a role amply filled by WebMD, Drugs.com, Yahoo Health and others — and concentrates on various kinds of interpersonal support. Ben Wolin, the co-founder and CEO of Waterfront Media, told me that EverydayHealth "is not a space that users visit to simply look up information... but an organic and active place for users to proactively manage their conditions and find ways to live better, healthier lives." Of course, "managing" your health isn't quite like managing your portfolio, so what does this mean?
That depends on whether you're looking for hard facts or just a forum to voice your concerns. The site does have a dossier on the symptoms, treatments and prognoses of a host of common and not-so-common ailments, but its unique contribution to the online health realm is the team of doctors that write for the site. They're concise and informative without being digressive or preachy, and while they can't respond to every question the millions of users pose, they do address the most common ones and digest new information on a litany of diseases and conditions.
If you have questions or you're looking for someone to commiserate with, the message boards are the place. They're very active — several million people are registered users of the site — and supplemented by a start-your-own-blog feature. Most people seem to opt for the message boards over the blogs, since it's the feedback that is helpful, and blogs are, by nature, somewhat declarative and lonely. Reading the message boards is alternately inspiring and heartbreaking. One thread in the "Emotional Health" category began with a user who was curious if anyone else was suffering both depression and major anxiety, and how they were dealing with the treatments. The first response was heartening, and began: "I have been going through both for several years, although a bit different than your story." But the second post was moribund: "I have been battling depression and anxiety for my whole life... I just don't know what to do anymore. I just want to be able to work and not feel so exhausted and doomed all the time." Does writing that on anonymous message board help?
Many health concerns are, for many Americans, still taboo and tough to discuss. For that very reason, the anonymity and camaraderie of online message boards may be a strangely ideal match for the average health-site user. The user that wrote that sad reply about depression also mentions in her post that "my husband and I don't have a good marriage." Maybe she feels like her problems burden him, or maybe she's embarrassed. What's more important is that she felt compelled to tell her story on a message board, and that doing so obviously provided her some comfort that she can't get from the prescription drugs she mentions, or the people in her life. Viewed in that light, it's no surprise that EverydayHealth has been growing in leaps and bounds; it's a poultice for the social soreness — maybe loneliness, maybe embarrassment, maybe confusion — that often surrounds sickness. Obviously, many users are there just out of curiosity, or concern for their general health. But it's heartening to think that the internet might be a tool not only for entertainment, or information, but also some kind of authentic human interaction. As an online culture, we may be heading for collectivism — but that doesn't have to mean the Web has to be impersonal.