Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Facebook Adds Organ Donation To Timeline: Should We "Like" It?

Typically, I post on Wednesdays.  However, with so much chatter about Facebook's announcement, this felt more timely.
Starting today, you can add your organ donation status to your Facebook timeline using the "share life" tool.  If you are already registered, you can share your story about where and why you decided to become an organ donor.  If you are interested in registering, you can follow links to official donor registries.

ABC has been a primary news source for this announcement, interviewing Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, demonstrating how to use the "share life" tool, and discussing myths and facts about organ donation.

Scanning Facebook and Twitter today (especially among my public health colleagues), the response seems to be overwhelmingly positive.  From my perspective, the Facebook tool has the potential to be effective (i.e., increasing the number of registered donors) because it focuses on action.  The tool is not for education.  The tool actually links to registries so that you can sign up.  The tool aims to increase the visibility of already registered donors, which in turn will influence others to sign up.  The tool aims to decrease the stigma and secrecy of talking about end of life decisions by putting it right up there next to your birth date and relationship status.  This may also influence others to sign up.  In previous posts, I have written about public health campaigns that use social media in order to reduce the stigma around an "undesirable" topic (e.g., STD testing).

Although I am 100% supportive of the mission of increasing organ donors and am familiar with the dire need for donations (e.g., 18 people will die each day waiting for an organ), I have a few reservations about "share life":

In today's New York Times coverage of the Facebook announcement, I read a sentence that concerned me (I added the underlining):

"The company announced a plan on Tuesday morning to encourage everyone on Facebook to start advertising their donor status on their pages, along with their birth dates and schools — a move that it hopes will create peer pressure to nudge more people to add their names to the rolls of registered organ donors".

I consider declaration as an organ donor to be a medical decision.  In public health and medicine, we strive for patients and the public to make such decisions from a position that is informed and lacks pressure from physicians or family or friends.  Therefore, I have reservations about people signing up without educating themselves first and/or because they feel pressure on Facebook.  Just a few weeks ago, I posted about "hashtag activism" and how easy it has become to get involved in causes via social media.  Are we as thoughtful when we participate in causes on Facebook as when we participate in real life?

My other ongoing concern is regarding the proper security and use of personal information that is gathered by Facebook.  Will your organ donation status result in particular advertisements being sent your way?  I remember updating my Facebook status to "engaged" 4 years ago and being overwhelmed by the wedding planning advertisements on my page.  There is increasing public outcry regarding privacy settings and the personal information you enter being used for Facebook to attract advertisers and other business opportunities. 

Again, I am 100% supportive of the organ donation mission.  I think the reach of Facebook offers tremendous public health opportunities (including the possible elimination of long wait time for organs).  While that is an attractive outcome, we must always remember to focus on the ethics of the process as well.

What do you think?
  •  Facebook has become directly involved with several public health issues (e.g., suicide, bullying, organ donation).  Are their strategies effective?  Why or why not? 
  • Do you foresee any unintended consequences from the organ donation tool?
  • Will you include your organ donation status on your Facebook timeline?  Why or why not?


  1. Great post Leah! I appreciate the pause for ethical consideration, but I'm not overly concerned about the moral ramifications of "pressuring" people into doing the right thing. This isn't exactly the kind of decision anyone will live to regret, considering they'll be brain dead well before their life-saving organs are harvested. I don't really see a down-side to organ donation. It's not exactly an "end of life" care decision. It's an after-death decision. And if a little "peer pressure" from Facebook is enough to make people shake their archaic attachment to their own dead bodies and re-assess the value of a decision that can help save a life at no cost to any living person, then good for Facebook. I'm going to post my status today! I'll let you know if I get any targeted ads from black market organ harvesters. :)

  2. I believe Facebook is trying to make a change in the world. Change is not bad if its intentions are for the betterment of all.

    I appreciate their idea on protecting people from cyber bullying and opening their ears for other issues related to wellness and health. If it's for a great cause, there's no doubt that I'll support it whether it came from Facebook or from the government or from non-profit organizations.

  3. I think it's a good thing and will spread the word of a good cause without needing to pay for Facebook ads etc..