Facebook stretches social boundaries to help organ donors

Social network moves beyond cute cat pictures with new organ donation effort in the days before its expected IPO

While Facebook made its fortune on people -- about 800 million users worldwide today -- posting funny pictures of their cats and kids, the social network is also taking advantage of its ability to be helpful to those in need.

Just today, Facebook executives took steps to let the site be used to connect medical patients with organ donors.

CEO and co-founder Mark Zuckerberg announced Tuesday morning that Facebook users in the U.S. and the U.K. can note in their Timelines that they're organ donors. The site will also provide links where Facebook users can sign up with organ donor registries.

"In terms of reach, Facebook is uniquely positioned to champion campaigns like this," said Brad Shimmin, an analyst with CurrentAnalysis.

"As we've seen, Facebook and other social networks can play an extremely important role as a nexus for information and connections after large-scale emergencies such as an earthquake or other natural disasters."

Rob Enderle, an analyst with the Enderle Group, noted that Facebook is perfectly set up to act as a hub for efforts in areas like fostering organ donations.

"It is fundamentally a communications platform which links large groups of people," he said. "Facebook started virally but it has grown into these other more practical uses. Folks are now learning that."

Patrick Moorhead, an analyst with Moor Insights & Strategy, pointed out that this also really helps Facebook as well as ease the path of users seeking organ donations.

"As Facebook attempts to improve its external image, I can see Facebook doing more of these efforts," said Moorhead. "While a good gesture, I believe Facebook did this primarily to improve their corporate profile as a company that cares about people, not one that just steps on users' privacy once a quarter."

And with Facebook's initial public offering expected this month or next, anything the social network can do to up its image is a good thing right now.

Shimmin agreed that Facebook is looking to enhance its reputation, and added that he hopes the firm will also make other changes before its IPO.

"Any steps Facebook can take to elevate its stature in the minds of both users and investors can't hurt," he said.

"I would like to see the company focus its efforts a bit more on protecting the privacy of its users, but as we've seen over the past two years or so, that looks to be a continuing tug of war between users and the financial opportunities available to Facebook." Shimmin added.

Sharon Gaudin covers the Internet and Web 2.0, emerging technologies, and desktop and laptop chips for Computerworld. Follow Sharon on Twitter at @sgaudin, or subscribe to Sharon's RSS feed . Her e-mail address is sgaudin@computerworld.com.

Copyright © 2012 IDG Communications, Inc.

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