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Can Facebook Replace the DMV?

Status updates are the new public-service announcements.

Facebook this week encouraged its 850 million users to declare themselves organ donors, a move experts say could prompt social-media companies to take on roles once reserved for government agencies.

Mark Zuckerberg, CEO of Facebook, at the company’s headquarters in Palo Alto, California.

The site rolled out a new feature Tuesday allowing members to publicly share their “organ donor status.” By the end of the day, Facebook says 100,000 people added “organ donor” to their timelines and, of those, 10,000 clicked through a link to sign up with state donor registries. Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg said he included the feature on the site because 114,000 people in the U.S. alone are waiting for heart, kidney or liver transplants. Facebook may prove more effective than the government in getting people to become organ donors, experts say.

“I love this initiative,” says Richard H. Thaler, professor of economics and behavioral science in the Booth School of Business at the University of Chicago. The social network is creating a “prompted choice,” he says, creating an environment in this case where donation is the norm — or de facto choice — rather than a difficult option.

This use of social media gets people more actively engaged than traditional advertising, experts say. “I wouldn’t be surprised if government-sponsored public service announcements started appearing on social networking sites like Facebook,” says Daniel Post-Senning, great-great grandson of the grand dame of etiquette Emily Post. This isn’t the first time Facebook has taken the lead in encouraging social change. In 2010, Zuckerberg added “in civil union” and “in a domestic partnership” to options for relationship status.

However, some are skeptical of Facebook’s efforts to get people to share the kind of personal information that was once the preserve of state ID cards. “I fear this is a kind of a digital Trojan horse,” says Jeffrey Chester, executive director of the Center for Digital Democracy, a Washington, D.C.-based non-profit privacy advocacy. He says the organ donor initiative obviously fulfills a public need, but says it could also be used for marketing and advertising purposes. (Facebook declined to comment on the new option.) People should be careful about posting anything relating to their financial and health status on Facebook, he says. Facebook has become a giant social experiment on how much privacy people are willing give up, investment adviser and blogger Jason Kelly says. “Why stop with organ-donor status? Let’s display the age we lost our virginity,”

But those concerns aside, many experts say there’s great potential for harnessing social media to change behavior. SmartMoney.com asked a panel of social commentators and analysts to suggest other government advocacy efforts that might be better accomplished on Facebook.

Here are five status updates you may one day see on Facebook:



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