Howard Rheingold has a pain in the butt – a big one – but how he is handling that fact is one snapshot of the rising power of social media in health care.

Howard is a veteran futurist. Onetime editor of the Whole Earth Catalog, one of the founding figures of the Well (the Ur of online communities), founder of and, author of Smart Mobs, a number of other books and an avalanche of article, posts, Tweets, podcasts, and videoblogs, lecturer at Stanford and Berkeley, popular speaker, Howard is known and loved not only for his insight and provocative thoughts, but for his sense of fun, his lime-green and canary yellow suits, and his shoes painted with Van Gogh’s “Starry Night.”

And now he has butt cancer.

At 62, he has just been diagnosed with squamous cell carcinoma of the rectum. What did he do about it, once he had talked to all the specialists, gotten his pain meds, and scheduled his radiation therapy and chemo? He posted on Facebook about his butt, then immediately gave his butt its own blog ( and Twitter feed ( – all of which were promptly inundated with responses, taking up the motto, “Howard’s butt is our butt!”

A silly diversion? Not at all. A smart way to handle the inevitable swarm of questions, expressions of sympathy, and offers to help. More than that, even: A stream of studies have strongly correlated people’s resilience in health crises to the size and strength of their social network. Your friends provide you not only with warmth and encouragement, they can also help out. Howard is lucky to have been married to Judy for 42 years, but she will need help as well, friends to cook meals, run errands, and drive him to therapy – and Howard has already arranged an online calendar on where friends can simply click the box to sign up for particular tasks.

Howard has always been a pioneer of the ways in which new technologies are re-shaping our connections to one another. And in this crisis, he is doing it again, patterning what will increasingly become a normal part of health care – using new technologies not only to track our situation, get lab results, and make appointments, but to organize our networks of support.

There are many of us in Howard's many communities linked across cyberspace who have appreciated his vision and his enthusiasms for the better natures of the future over the years, and who wish him well, and offer him our best hope and help in this struggle. We're with you, Howard.