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Facebook: the social (engineering) network?

Facebook is the world’s largest social network and arguably it knows more about many individuals than any other organization.

The data it collects from the hundreds of millions of users it serves has enabled Facebook to build a billion-dollar advertising business, and serves as justification for Facebook’s valuation, which may top $ 100bn when the company finally makes its public debut.

But Facebook also thinks it has the potential to encourage people to do good.

Inspired by conversations with his girlfriend, who is studying to become a doctor, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg decided that his company was in a position to help individuals who are waiting for an organ transplant. Some 7,000 of them die every year waiting, many because an organ does not become available before their ailment kills. One of the main reasons for that is the lack of organ donors.

So in an effort to encourage more people to become organ donors, Facebook is launching an initiative that will ask users in certain countries to share their organ donor status on their Facebook profiles under a Health and Wellness section.

Zuckerberg told ABC News, “Facebook is really about communicating and telling stories…We think that people can really help spread awareness of organ donation and that they want to participate in this to their friends. And that can be a big part of helping solve the crisis that’s out there.”

It’s an admirable goal, but is it a good one for the world’s largest social network to pursue?

Instead of allowing its users to communicate and tell stories of their own, Facebook is promulgating its own story here, one that suggests its users think about taking a particular action and encouraging their Facebook contacts to do the same. In other words, Facebook’s organ donor status demonstrates that the social network thinks it can just as easily influence what we think about and what we decide to do in some of the most private and intimate areas of our lives.

Whether well-intentioned or not, the type of social engineering Facebook is engaging in here could prove very, very thorny.

In this particular case, there are a number of issues. The most obvious, of course, is the fact that indicating on Facebook that you’re willing to donate your organs may be meaningless legally. Skeptics might even suggest that it will promote ‘slacktivism.’ After all, it’s easy to declare your support for a cause, in this case organ donation, but how many who indicate they want to be donors will actually make sure they’re officially registered as organ donors?

Another major issue is where this all ends. Will Facebook eventually suggest that you eat more fruit, or will Mark Zuckerberg’s next cause of interest lead him to use his social network to push you to take action? Which causes are too big too ignore; which causes are too small to care about? Who decides?

Perhaps most interesting here is the possibility that Facebook will use these initiatives for less-than-altruistic goals. Some are questioning the timing of Facebook’s initiative here, and the company is also using its push to encourage users to supply other personal information, ranging from birth date and school to recent medical milestones, like a broken bone or weight loss. It doesn’t take too much imagination to see why Facebook would want this information for purposes other than encouraging individuals to become organ donors.

All these things highlight the major challenge Facebook has: it can be a platform for connecting individuals, or it can be a platform for trying to influence individuals. It arguably can’t be both, and Mark Zuckerberg has an important choice to make: remain the CEO of one of the most widely-used communications platforms in history, or follow in the footsteps of the great media moguls who sought to use their platforms to distribute their own messages.

If Zuckerberg opts for the latter route, Facebook effectively becomes a social engineering network, not a social network.

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