Facebook announced its decision to democratize its policy change process in April 2009, with plenty of fanfare and a blog post from Mark Zuckerberg itself. The very first vote took place in the following days, effectively voting in users’ ability to vote. The second vote didn’t take place until June 2012; both votes had a turnout of well under one percent of Facebook’s user base. Facebook announced both votes on its blog and the second on its site governance page, which is followed by 2.5 million users, and that’s as much alerting as it bothered to do.
The third, and what will likely be the last, vote is upcoming. Facebook’s proposed policy change this time, among a couple of other tweaks, removes the need for Facebook to invite comments that may lead to a mandatory vote (voting about voting, yo dawg), and removes the need for the company to advise users of any changes made for “legal or administrative” reasons.
Laying aside the vague terminology for a minute, the idea of having their votes taken away is understandably shocking to users. But the votes held so far have done nothing but disgrace everyone involved.
For Facebook, the comparatively minuscule turnout, combined with copy-and-pasted or knee-jerk reaction comments on the related post, makes users look slovenly and apathetic. But to users, the incredibly high threshold required to make results binding (30 percent) and Facebook’s reticence about publicizing the votes make the company look like it’s trying to sneakily stack the deck in its favor while enacting changes that informed parties are unhappy about.
The overarching problem for users is not actually apathy, but ignorance. Many aren’t even familiar with the ways their personal data is being used, and slightly fewer are unaware there’s anything they can do about it. The blame for that falls partly on users, but Facebook, wanting their business, isn’t exactly a reliable narrator when it comes to describing it makes money. Facebook’s real problem is that its approach to governance was unrealistic even when it was a third of the size in 2009 that it is now, combined with a need to move even more quickly on its business end now that it’s accountable to shareholders. There’s no longer time to play these token goodwill games with its users.
As Facebook decides to take away the vote, the real question is whether the service is more like a sovereign nation or a service. Practically speaking, in terms of what Facebook is to Facebook, it’s the latter: Facebook buys our data for the price of feeding our collective interest in each other (and, increasingly, brands and pages) and sells it to advertisers.
But Facebook is something else to users. Is using Facebook comparable to living in America? Is its use that integral and essential? Or is it more like a retail store in a free economy, where if we don’t like how it does business, we’re free to walk?
It seems silly to say that Facebook is as impossible to leave as the country you live in, but hard to argue that it’s not becoming more so, socially, every day. And more importantly, Facebook wants to be that essential, as evidenced by its aggressive pursuit of user engagement and its spread as an authenticator.
The loss of the ability to vote seems ominous, particularly since Facebook excuses itself from informing users about policy changes at all if they’re made under the broad umbrella of “legal or administrative” reasons. It feels like we had opportunities to prove we care about how Facebook does business and squandered them. But it also feels like Facebook, setting the binding-vote threshold at 30 percent and materially informing almost no one about it, didn’t do its level best to make votes work.
The post announcing the policy change has already received over 12,000 dissenting comments, and that’s just the English-language version; that’s well over the 7,000 required to push the change to a vote. But we feel comfortable guessing that this vote won’t rate enough participation to be binding; rather, it will fall under the 30 percent threshold, which Facebook will consider “advisory,” one last forced “we get it, you’re mad.
The governance of Facebook has vast implications for over a billion people now. Its policies have the attention of government and privacy interest groups, but users (and Facebook) failed to raise significant awareness about the issues over more than three years. And so here lies the Facebook site governance vote, the failed Internet democracy experiment.