Pando

With Organ Donations Addition, Facebook Becomes a Force for Good

By Hamish McKenzie , written on May 1, 2012

From The News Desk

Bravo to Sheryl Sandberg, who started the conversation that led to today's organ donation announcement. In a co-signed blog post published this morning, Sandberg and Mark Zuckerberg said Facebook will let users declare and update their organ donation status, as well as provide links to the national donor registry. But what's more exciting is that this is a potentially transformative step away from the narcissism of Facebook's early days to a more socially responsible framework in which good-doing is rewarded by support within social networks.

Facebook will be adding the donor options in a new section called Health and Wellness, which, according to the New York Times, will also allow people to share their weight loss progress (not as trivial as it first looks, given this country's obesity problems).

It's stating the obvious to say this is a welcome development. Nearly 7,000 people in the US die each year while waiting for transplants, and part of the problem hospitals face is the difficulty in finding donors. Today, 114,000 people are waiting for organ transplants. This initiative will go a long way to improving awareness and even driving people to sign up as donors.

What I find more compelling, however, is that this is the first a major Facebook-endorsed move to incentivize us to act in the interests of society at large rather than just in service of our selfish desires. (Update: Inside Facebook writer Brittany Darwell has pointed out it's not the first: here are three other examples.)

Of course, we shouldn't get too excited for the end of narcissism. I'm sure those vacuous "Places I've Travelled" or "Five Things You Didn't Know About Me" apps will enjoy much greater up-take than the "I'm An Organ Donor!" option. But this is a start, and it will inspire others to follow suit. I'll be a lot happier on Facebook when my friends are telling me they bought a cow for a family in Bangladesh, helped finance a hydro-electricity project in Nepal, or saved a woman from a burning building in Newark.

Biological rewards for altruism are already baked into human hardware. There is evidence, for instance, that volunteering helps you live longer, overcome stress, and that, when you help someone, the brain rewards you with the release of "feel good" chemicals. Facebook's organ-donor initiative builds on those biological effects and adds a viral element that will amplify the rewards on personal and group levels.

Of course, the trick here is that Facebook uses the Trojan Horse of social conscience to stoke self-interest. Facebook is not only allowing us to effectively moralize to our friends about our good deeds and therefore earn a kind of ethical street cred, but it will also be pricking guilty consciences into action. This plays off the same psychological strategy that ethical fashion startup Fashioning Change uses in order to get shoppers to buy eco-friendly alternatives to mainstream brands. There is immense power in the network-level guilt trip.

Cynics will cry "Slacktivism!" But they would be missing the point. Awareness is at least half the problem here. This is one case in which status updates and Likes can have meaningful effects on a large scale. It's easy to watch the "Kony 2012" video and then forget about Uganda. It's less easy to ignore that your friend is a declared organ donor, while you're some schlub who apparently doesn't give a shit.

Credit where credit's due: Way to go, Facebook. This is best riposte yet to former Facebooker Jeff Hammerbacher's comment that the best minds of his generation are "thinking about how to make people click ads." Let's hope for more of the same.

And now, watch Zuckerberg finally nail a PR moment.