Facebook has taken a new step with its network by asking its users to share whether they’re organ donors on their profile pages.

In the past, Facebook has used its considerable clout — the company has 900 million users, after all — to speak out on issues such as online bullying or on how small businesses can use social media. And others, obviously, have used Facebook as a social organization tool.

But the new tool is significant, not simply because of the spotlight it brings to organ donation but also because it marks the first time that Facebook has so deeply used its platform to spread awareness about a topic completely unrelated to its business.

Most people think about becoming an organ donor when they’re filling out license information at the Department of Motor Vehicles. But according to bioethics scholar Art Caplan, the social network is a more appropriate place to spread awareness about the issue.

In an article on MSNBC.com, Caplan said that “asking people to do something nice for others when they have been stewing in a long line, getting angrier and angrier while they wait is not conducive to altruism.”

Individuals have been shown to exert incredible influence over members of their social circle when it comes to donations. The New York Times profiled “Chain 124,” a remarkable group of 60 people all linked by kidney donations; each donor was the friend, relative or acquaintance of someone who had been a recipient.

And social media have proved a good place to spur people to action. That’s how Chris Strouth found a kidney, as Twitter has documented on its “Twitter Stories” Web site. Strouth tweeted that he needed a kidney, the company said, and within a few days had 19 people offer to be tested for a match. The same has been true for Facebook: USA Today profiled a young father who received a kidney from a family friend in January.

Although social media certainly haven’t reached the same number of potential donors as the DMV, Caplan said that such sites could be far more effective, even if it’s simply to notify your friends and family of your wishes.

“Facebook gives one more avenue for others to learn about your wishes — and that is all to the good,” he wrote.

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