Facebook Wants Us To Save Lives Through Organ Donation, Will We Follow Through?

This morning, Facebook announced a new feature which lets users post to their Facebook timeline that they’ve chosen to be an organ donor. The idea is that friends will choose to share the story of their decision with friends, hopefully tapping into Facebook’s natural virality to encourage others to do the same. (Hey, it’s worth a shot.) Facebook is also helpfully linking to state and national organ donation registries, where appropriate.

While obviously a move worthy of mention given Facebook’s size and scale, the story has been overhyped by Facebook and media as a new feature that “will save lives.” That’s going a bit far. It is one thing to post on Facebook, it’s quite another to actually impact change.

Far be it from me to call out Facebook’s move as a pre-IPO publicity stunt (am I really that cynical? sigh), but the truth is that organ donations have traditionally struggled for a number of reasons, none of which is because sharing your opinion on Facebook was too hard. The Mayo Clinic, for example, has a handy Q&A about donations which addresses what are, frankly, very human fears about the process – namely, things like “if I agree to donate my organs, the hospital staff won’t work as hard to save my life,” and “maybe I won’t really be dead…”

Fear of being alive, but not really alive enough to stop a donation, is a deep-rooted, intrinsically human fear. Will reading a Facebook status update from a friend change any that? This is a country, after all, where we entertain ourselves with trifles like Grey’s Anatomy, for example, where hot, young surgeons treat patients’ bodies like pieces of meat they just want to get their scalpels into. Is it shocking that we now fear this is how doctors actually operate – that the lure of the potential organ donation trumps that of life-saving? They may be irrational myths, and highly offensive to doctors, but there they are. Facebook thinks it can overpower TV and movies’ influence on popular opinion? Well, I’ll grab my popcorn for that. That’s a battle worth watching, at least.

In addition to the above fears, there are other concerns about organ donations that the Mayo Clinic addresses as myths. There are mistaken religious concerns, worries over whether you can have an open-casket funeral (you can), and health and age-related issues (I’m too sick/old/unhealthy to donate), which stop people from marking “yes” when making this critical decision. (A decision we traditionally are forced to consider while at the DMV, for what it’s worth.)

What will the actual impact be, then, of this whole “post your organ donation status to Facebook” feature? Raising awareness, increasing organ donation sign-ups? Sure, it has that potential mainly because Facebook is large enough that even if a very small fraction of the user base jumps on board, it can have an effect.

Plus, Facebook isn’t entirely new to the area of trying to impact social change. It supports Amber Alerts, for example…although it hasn’t provided info on child recovery from doing so. In Japan, it lets users share their blood type…but then again, that’s because doing so is popular in Japanese culture.

The concern here is that real-world activism and “social activism” are not one and the same. Posting to Facebook that you are a donor and actually following through with a donation, whether living or deceased, takes a bit more effort. Like actually clicking through on the links to the organ donation registries, for example. Then actually filling out the online forms. Actually clicking submit on said forms. Actually telling your family members about those forms. Etc. Etc.

Simply shouting out your opinion on your Facebook profile is not enough, legally speaking, to turn one into a donor…although it could be used to convince by doctors to convince wary family members of your wishes’, or assist in legal battles.

At the end of the day, this is an awareness-raising effort – it can be effective the way that wearing ribbons pinned to your lapel is effective, perhaps. It paints Facebook as the social engineer, starting a conversation between friends. That’s good stuff. But at what scale will a feature update impact actual change? We can’t possibly know yet – for starters, the feature is tucked away under “life events,” an under-utilized part of the status update box, which many don’t know exist. Plus, Facebook usually serves at the platform for communication – it doesn’t typically try to put words and thoughts in users’ mouths. But really, the question about the potential for actual “life saving” comes down to whether or not Facebook users can make the leap from posting an update, to clicking a link, to actually doing something.

I’m hopeful that it can, because imagine the impact when Facebook uses its power for good. But will Facebook users actually follow through? It’s too soon to say.