Forgive the rather lame title but I felt I had to go out on a limb on this one. Facebook, the social media behemoth, is grabbing the corporate responsibility bull by the horns. They have announced plans to allow members (who are approaching a formidable one billion in strength) in the United States and the UK to “share” their organ donation preference. Ireland nor many other countries will not immediately have access, but it is likely this unexpected feature will spread like Timeline. Mark Zuckerberg and Co. believe this move will encourage members to sign up to “real-life” donation schemes, saving lives in the process. Will it?
Some of Facebook’s past endeavours have not gone down well – privacy settings arguably more complex than arming a nuclear missile being one example. Sharing your donation status may also be somewhat of a legal minefield. If someone dies and they have not taken the legal steps required to donate their organs, despite their Facebook status arguing the contrary, what then?
The first few cases will set the legal trend, but by and large the legalities are only a cog in something bigger. Why? Because I am talking about organ donation today, even though I was not yesterday. Nor were my friends until I told them. Now you are also mulling over the issue. We are communicating just like Facebook always intended us to, except this time it seems to be for an altruistic reason – somewhat of a rarity on the vanity trail that Facebook has become. What better way to cement your legacy then to donate your organs to someone in dire need? Now that would be a refreshing status update.
What are Facebook’s true intentions however? Is it marketing with heart or something more? Despite the status updates of conscientious members, whose nuggets of wisdom include “Like this link and we will beat cancer together” or “Click like if you want Kony brought to justice”, Facebook has always to my mind first endorsed a corporate/capitalist hybrid. A “yes, let’s keep people coming back, but also let them keep making us money.” I am scratching my head trying to figure out what founder Mark Zuckerberg’s angle is on this. Certainly it is good press for a man who has come under pressure for his constant desire to push the privacy envelope to the limit.
Looking at the Irish situation, while organ donation reached record levels last year (248 donations), demand continues to outstrip supply, with over 650 people currently on waiting lists. Ireland operates an “opt-in” system. This means that unless you express your wishes to donate, your organs die with you. Much of the population are familiar with the concept of donor cards (often marketed as vital to have on your person at all times) and the necessity to inform your next-of-kin. Fewer know that the latter have the final say however.
In fact whatever your card says, your next-of-kin can veto your decision: “Your next-of-kin should know of your wish to be an organ donor, but they are not bound to abide by your wishes and their consent is always required.”
This is an outdated stumbling block we are not set up to deal with as a country. The donor card may be a beacon of hope, but if hope can be extinguished by a misguided (if well-intentioned) family member, then what is the point? If a person, based on religious reasoning or informed objections, does not agree with donating organs, then this must be respected. If they refuse out of fear however, this is a great loss for Irish society.
Speaking to Cork.Studenty.Me, National Projects Manager of the Irish Kidney Association Colin White says he is in favour of the surprise move by Facebook:
“I think it’s a very positive step forward. The absolute critical issue around organ donation is people letting their next-of-kin know their wishes in advance. So if having that on your Facebook profile helps to let your family know or remind them that you’re in favour of organ donation, well that’s pretty good in my book.”
It is no surprise the IKA are all in favour of a technological solution to boosting donation rates. They are active across many networks, including Facebook and Twitter, and they have also developed a smart phone app. the Organ Donor ECard app, available for download on iPhone and Android.
An arguably more progressive system is “opt-out”, whereby everyone is assumed to have given consent unless they expressly state otherwise. Spain is a pioneer in this area, and does have an opt-out system. Research has shown however that across a variety of countries the type of system makes little difference to donation levels. Spain’s success appears to emanate from a dedicated group of doctors and medical professionals across the country who are trained to seek potential donors within hospitals. Treating a family that is devastated and in shock with respect and empathy seems to make all the difference.
Should we go down this route? (“Can we” is a question for another day given the state of the economy)
Colin White also feels this is prudent: “It’s a hellishly difficult question to ask at a hellishly difficult time, but how is the question “Have you considered organ donation?” handled? Spain brought in donor coordinators, who work with the family. I think there is a growing realisation that the Spanish Model is the way to go. There will always be a role however for the donor card to get people talking about organ donation.”
There is work to be done however. Ireland does lag behind its counterparts at a policy level in that we do not have a formal donor registry. Where the government may fail however, an EU Directive on organ donation may be the catalyst required. Colin White believes it is coming in the near future:
“In the US and the UK they are offering links so that people can formally register. They have formal registries in both those countries. Now we don’t have one here but it is probably in the pipeline. The fact that Facebook are linking in with the people responsible for the registries means it is well thought out. I would envisage us making a direct approach to Facebook, given that their European headquarters are based in Ireland, saying “Hey, what about Ireland?”
Loathe as I am to say it, for the first time I feel Facebook may actually turn into the community it always professed to be. It could of course also play to Zuckerberg’s advantage in terms of further embedding the values of Facebook in our lives, this time at a policy level. If it is easier to get people to commit to donating organs and saving lives with the click of a button, why would governments spend more money to overcomplicate the process with expensive registries? Why not pay less money to Facebook for the service which slots neatly in with the rest of the site’s functions? Still, even if this hypothetical scenario were true, the uptake in donations may make it worthwhile. We’ve pretty much given away every other piece of information about ourselves already anyway.
Google recently announced their own exciting initiative – Project Glass. This will allow the wearers of hi-tech glasses experience augmented reality, essentially the improvement of what we normally experience via human senses through technology. Facebook has turned this idea on its head and applied it to organ donation. If it works and radically boosts donations, it could equate to the discovery of penicillin. This is a big “if” of course, but it does highlight how powerful Facebook has become. Can it succeed where multiple governments have failed?
Facebook remains the social network, but this time it has surprised me. I hate Farmville with a passion, but Organville? I coud live with that. It may even be time to re-define the term “close friend”.