One healthy intestine courtesy of a US transplant centre: $1,206,800. Having the same centre insert a new heart: $997,700. Opting for the heart/lung combo-pack: $1,248,400. Sharing your donor status on Facebook: priceless. Or so the social network, which on Tuesday added an organ donation status option to its timeline view, would have you believe.
Facebook’s “life-saving” new feature aims to address a critical shortfall of donors by turning organ donation into an accepted social norm. People are encouraged to increase awareness of the issue by sharing, not just their donor status, but also the details around their becoming a donor along with donation stories. No doubt you will soon be able to tag your superfluous kidney in the new owner’s photo albums.
I don’t mean to sound facetious. An organ transplant in the US may cost an arm and a leg, but Facebook’s effort to at least ensure a sufficient level of donors is laudable. Unless you’re a Jehovah’s Witness or the Republican governor of Arizona, it’s pretty difficult to disagree with encouraging organ donations. Of course, there are those suspicious of how the principle might work in practice. Commenting on a New York Times article about the issue, Myrtle Mae of Milwaukee states: “too much information. next some wack job will be killing people they track on Facebook and selling their vital organs.”
It seems unlikely that a spontaneous status update will lead to your waking up in an ice-bath. But Myrtle may have a point. “Too much information” encapsulates a not-uncommon exasperation towards Facebook’s seemingly insatiable appetite for its users’ vital statistics. Not to mention the company’s apparent ambition to implant itself into every aspect of our lives – and afterlives. There is a missionary zeal behind Facebook’s latest foray into, as the New York Times terms it, “social engineering”, which does not sit quite comfortably.
After all, no matter how good Facebook’s intentions may be, sharing your data with the social network additionally entails releasing that data to an unknown sum of other corporations. Those to whom you have granted explicit access to your information through tools like Facebook Connect, and those to whom Facebook sells your information for the revenue that helps it keep the site free.
Free of charge but, crucially, not free of cost. In choosing to use things like Facebook and Gmail we are making the tacit (and often unconscious) statement that our personal information is a price we are willing to pay in exchange for relevant services we don’t have to shell out for. What results is a massive data stock, which, when analysed, means brands can potentially understand us better than we understand ourselves. Google can serve you up ads that are frightening in their precision, US online store Target can figure out your daughter is pregnant before you do, and credit card companies are able to predict your divorce by two years. It’s scary stuff. Or is it?
When it comes to sharing our most intimate details with brands, research suggests that we’re not quite sure how we feel. A Future Poll study conducted in March 2012 found that while 82% of people in the UK were concerned about the way their personal information was used online 84% of people would share their personal information with brands in exchange for a tailored service. Furthermore, 34% of people would be willing to share details about their health with brands in exchange for better service, a figure that increases to 49% once cash or rewards are offered. “To put this 49% in to perspective,” Future Poll analyst James Kennedy told me, “it is a significantly higher proportion than those who said they would share details of what websites they look at (36%) or their personal incomes (27%).”
People, it seems, are uncertain what value to place on their data. And out of that uncertainty has emerged a lucrative new market for services that afford consumers a semblance of control over the monetisation of their personal information. Sites such as Allow let users choose which companies are permitted to contact them and gives them compensation for their data.
How much, then, are you worth? The economics are far from straightforward. While we can quantify the costs of transferring a functioning intestine from one body to another, calculating the value of our more intangible assets is a far more complicated proposition. But one thing is clear: no matter how invaluable sharing information like your donor status online may be, it is not priceless. Rather, it comes at a very real cost. The problem is, no one can be sure what that is yet.
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