Will social networks become platforms for civic engagement? Facebook's experiment with organ donation is a step in the right direction.
Can your social network solve a social problem?
Facebook hopes the answer is yes: The company will soon allow users to indicate whether they are organ donors on their profiles, hoping the public statement will encourage more people to become donors and provide an additional sign of consent if family members are asked to approve organ donation after a user’s death.
Sick patients waiting for donor organs face a harrowing and helpless experience: There are more than 100,000 Americans waiting for donor organs today. Most of them are waiting for kidney transplants, a procedure with a high rate of success, but they’ll be waiting an average of about four years. About 18 people die each day for lack of available donations.
While formally signing up to be an organ donor through a state registry is still the best way for donors to ensure that their organs go to people in need after they die, donation advocates expect Facebook’s foray into civic activism—using the internet’s public square as a place for public benefit—to make organ donation far more prevalent. Think of it as the best kind of peer pressure—and the first step toward more efforts by social networks to change the way people behave.
Today, only 43 percent of Americans are registered organ donors, but some 90 percent support the practice, according to Donate Life America, a nonprofit that sees donation as a fundamental human responsibility. If donors publicly identify themselves on the popular platform, it could create positive association with the practice among their friends, helping erase the difference between people who support donation and those who are signed up to do it.
Behavioral economists like Richard Thaler explain why Facebook’s plan might work by applying insights about human psychology; for instance, you’re more likely to follow through on responsibilities from saving for retirement to buying health insurance if you’re faced with a decision to opt-out rather than opt-in. Forcing people to choose whether or not they’re organ donors on Facebook has a similar effect—it lowers the bar for people to do the right thing.
Countries in Europe that have adopted “presumed consent” policies toward organ donation have far higher rates of participation because the vast majority of people support donation. While it’s unlikely we’ll see a similar law changes in the United States, mass identification as donors—through Facebook and other social tools—could create a culture change with similar effects.
Thaler himself was pleased with Facebook’s decision, tweeting a hearty “yay!” and suggesting that Facebook find other ways to adopt “nudge” architecture—the term Thaler has used to describe systems to help people make better choices—into its platform. He suggests taking a similar approach to voting, with users being able to indicate whether they’re registered to vote, an effective reminder and subtle incentive for more people to participate in the democratic process. Think of the “I Voted” stickers given out at polling places on Election Day; you might have forgotten to vote, but when you see someone wearing their sticker in the supermarket, you may still have time to run down and pull the lever. Replicating that experience online could help make our civic life more robust and build on social networks' occasionally wavering promise to make our lives better, not just waste our time in more targeted and entertaining ways.
One could imagine Facebook encouraging users to undertake a variety of different positive behaviors. The site’s organ donor indicator will be part of a health and wellness profile that could help nudge people toward weight loss or basic cancer screenings. Besides building participation in the political process, social networks could publicize emergency preparedness plans (How many people actually have them? They’re a good idea!) or reduce their personal environmental impact.
Of course, any time a company like Facebook takes it upon itself to adapt its software to steer people toward a specific choice, it's liable to face a backlash from people who don’t want the extra direction—some European activists complain vociferously about the presumed consent of organ donors, after all. While organ donation and civic participation are relatively uncontroversial, Facebook is likely to face increasingly penetrating questions about just how it structures its site to affect your behavior.
At this point in the game, though, it’s nice to see Facebook taking the opportunity to use its social network for good—even if the timing of this announcement to coincide with next week’s billion dollar IPO roadshow is no accident of public relations—and hopefully inspiring its competitors to integrate social impact into their business plans.