Yesterday Mark Zuckerberg announced that he is going to add functionality to Facebook which encourages organ donation. While his intention seems sincere (his girlfriend alerted him to the critical need for organ donors), his plan to address it showcases widespread hubris relating to social media and the internet in general.
The problem with Zuckerberg’s plan is that there is already a effective method for increasing organ donation. In Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein’s great book Nudge, they point out that an opt-out system used in Spain has pushed their per capita organ donations to the highest level in the world. In most places (U.S. included) people opt-in at the DMV or (now I guess) on Facebook, and because it takes effort to to opt-in (however negligible) the organ donation rate suffers. Some people dispute the effectiveness of an opt-out system, but businesses use the opt-out practice for credit card autorenewal all of the time to great success. Point being, leveraging people’s proclivity towards the status quo is more effective thank asking them to change something minute.
Zuckerberg is proposing another opt-in system on Facebook. His initial push will generate some awareness and whatever app he develops will generate some community engagement. But many (if not most users) will simply ignore it because they can. This is the challenge of an opt-in system.
The hubris here is one that is common to social media and the internet. We want people to conform, to buy, and to consume while we remain passive. It’s perplexing to me that so many people appear to believe the “if you build it they will come” mythology. Point being that increasing organ donation awareness on Facebook may be somewhat helpful, but if Zuckerberg were trying to maximize the number of organ donors he would spend some of his billion-dollar fortune and million dollar lobbying budget to persuade legislators of the value of opting-out rather than opting-in.
I worked with a phenomenal colleague who was on the waiting list for a kidney transplant. He is one of the most charismatic people that I’ve ever met, but by day five after a dialysis treatment he was physically and mentally spent. To hear him discuss coming to terms with his mortality in his mid-40s was hard, particularly because at his best he was at the pinnacle of his profession.
Increasing the quality of life of my friend and of millions more is the idealism driving Zuckerberg. I admire his adoption of a very important cause, but wish he would go beyond this passive strategy and go all in.