Facebook’s private experiment with democracy
Voter turnout has always been a problem for developed nations, but what about developed social networks? Facebook, with its 900 million users, is often written about as if it were the personal prelature of its founder, Mark Zuckerberg. But Facebook itself prefers the term “ecosystem” – with good reason. Facebook’s engineers provide the basic conditions for life – the agar at the bottom of the social-media Petri dish. In turn, it’s developers and users who really craft their own worlds, their own experiences of Facebook – not Facebook itself. And whatever world they craft, it can only exist in the laws that govern the Facebook universe. Who ultimately decides those laws? Facebook.
Given that reality, it’s amazing that most users don’t care a lick about the vote happening on the site, right now, today, over proposed changes to Facebook’s privacy policies. Nor did they care much about the last vote over the site’s Terms of Service, which happened in 2009. Of course, it’s hard to care about something you don’t know is happening. Even though the vote is making the news here and there, there’s no inkling of any promotion on Facebook itself about what sounds like a rather important site event.
Go ahead and take a look. Log into your Facebook page and check for any kind of banner alerting you to the fact that a vote over two policies – the Statement of Rights and Responsibilities and the Data Use Policy – is under way until Friday June 8, 9 a.m., Pacific Daylight Time. You won’t find it. Nor will you likely find the Facebook Site Governance page, because, if you’re like me, despite the page garnering 2.1 million likes, only three of my several hundred friends have found it, and I clearly missed those particular updates whenever they scrolled across my feed.
What’s worse, even if you find these pages, as I did, and manage to vote on them, your vote will likely count for nothing. Facebook has reserved the right to keep the results of the vote as “advisory” unless 30 percent of its active userbase actually fills out the ballot. So, unless 230 million of us bother to read these documents and vote on them, Facebook will do whatever it wants, anyway, likely adopting the documents as proposed. (If you’re wondering, there’s little new material in them. Mostly they’re housekeeping changes making the documents a bit clearer in defining terms – as best I can tell, anyway. They are quite long and dry.)
The vote helps Facebook, long dogged by complaints about arbitrary changes to its privacy rules, claim it’s incorporating its users in its decisions. But what kind of vote is this, really? Small-time and provisionary. Instead of getting to vote on something like a Declaration of War, they’re rubber-stamping the name of a new Post Office. And only if a few hundred million of them show up to hold the stamp.
The details of Facebook’s Constitution, its radical claims about its right to share your personal information, were made unimpeachable a long time ago, and carved in stone in Mark Zuckerberg’s IPO letter. A mass mobilization against Facebook’s proposed changes wouldn’t roll back Facebook’s policies; it would just force the company to revert to a slightly less clear version of them. And though Facebook representatives told Techcrunch the user threshold came from a quaint time, 2009, when the site was much smaller, they apparently didn’t bother to examine how the voting procedure would scale ahead of this current, ahem, election cycle.
Given the threshold, why isn’t Facebook actively trying to make the vote legitimate by advertising about it in people’s news feeds? I think if you ask Facebook about this, they’d claim, rightfully, that users of the site who care about things like its governance will find the vote, and those that don’t, won’t. Why should they prioritize anything on their social network (other than revenue-generating ads, of course) without a user-generated signal to do so? Fundamentally, Facebook only works because of sharing, tagging, and the like. And it only makes money when it shows users little ads on its pages. Any pixel not devoted to one of those two missions is superfluous. And staging any vote to change them would be more like staging a referendum on secession. Facebook, the entity, will always be Zuckerberg’s. Don’t like it? You’re free to leave, individually, at any time. Far from retaining you against your will, Facebook will even help renouncers on their way.
For example, did you know you can download your Facebook archive at any time? Much like your knowing about the vote, the answer, I’ll wager a guess, is no. And here’s why: Besides gazing at the downloaded archive file, like a butterfly that’s been pinned to a corkboard, what would you do with the thing? All its value as a social tool is stripped away when you rip it out of the network. Your Facebook data living for long outside of Facebook is as likely as a fish living outside of water. It becomes a fossil.
So users are left to make the best of what they’re given. This Facebook “vote” came about after protester Max Schrems garnered over 40,000 comments about the policy changes, essentially forcing Facebook, under its antiquated rules, to hold a referendum on the benign policy changes it proposed. But here’s the difference between a developed nation and a developed social network: Facebook will likely change these rules, so that next time, Schrems can’t force a vote quite so easily, if at all. And when it does that, it won’t ask for a vote.
So even this fledgling democracy, where nothing is at stake and hardly anyone cares about the outcome, is too much for Facebook. Right next to the Terms of Service regulations that Schrems used to trigger this vote is the following clause: “We can make changes for legal or administrative reasons, or to correct an inaccurate statement, upon notice without opportunity to comment.” In other words, the medium of Facebook – the reality of existence in it – will never be ours to change. The laws of Facebook are only for its gods to control.