The Facebook Doctrine
Instagram, the mobile photo sharing app that Facebook bought for about $700 million, has been doing something new over the past few weeks. Up until now, one couldn’t see all of a user’s Instagrams online, the way you could, say, see all of a Twitter users’ tweets. But in recent weeks, users’ collections have been uploaded to the Internet automatically (see my profile page as an example). Instagram never bothered to ask for permission. Don’t want people to be able to easily access all your pictures from your Web browser? Too bad.
Between the Instagram change and other more substantive and complex alterations to Facebook’s user-feedback policy this week, the world’s largest social network has a clear modus operandi: What’s good for Facebook is good for you. This is the Facebook Doctrine.
Along with relatively innocuous Instagram changes came word that Facebook intends to eliminate its very modest experiment with democracy. It was a scheme by which members could undo changes (but still not stop them from happening before they took place). The rules Facebook put in place established a transparent process: A policy could be reversed if it received more than 7,000 comments, more than 30 percent of people on Facebook participated in a vote, and if that plurality voted against it.
It instilled at least an illusion of participation. And, of course, it had to go because it might actually have worked — at least in exposing anger and frustration with Facebook in a way sanctioned by Facebook itself. Getting 330 million people to vote on anything might never have never happened. But with 1 billion members, getting 7,000 comments to trigger a referendum is an easy threshold to meet. It’s not hard to imagine such a tiny percentage of the members seeking to put everything to a vote. Andrew Noyes, a Facebook spokesman, told Reuters that two issues had put to a vote under the old rules.
“We found that the voting mechanism, which is triggered by a specific number of comments, actually resulted in a system that incentivized the quantity of comments over their quality,” said Elliot Schrage, vice president, communications, public policy and marketing in a blog post this week.
Yeah, Facebook, democracy sure can be a hassle.
Facebook now has an unprecedented billion members and some momentum on Wall Street — shares are trading in the $24 range, and they actually rallied after last week’s massive lock-up expiration. No wonder it is growing more comfortable in its self-appointed role as beneficent tyrant.
“Facebook now argues that it is too big for democracy, much like the Chinese government might,” Michael Phillips wrote on BuzzFeed. “Call this new regime Facebook with Authoritarian Characteristics.”
Also in Facebook’s new rules is the loosening of restrictions on who can contact you using your @facebook.com e-mail address. Don’t know you have one? Better check; when Facebook unveiled this feature they decided — for your own good, mind you — that it should be listed as your default e-mail on Facebook.
But by far the most egregious and telling Facebook change is to the voting protocol — itself just a fig leaf, which led to not a single policy reversal.
In its stead will be — I kid you not — a suggestion box. Live chats with Chief Privacy Officer Erin Egan. An e-mail blast to all members about a change that will take effect, and a seven-day comment period during which, as the Wall Street Journal reports, “the community can still push the proposal to a vote.”
Good luck with that, community.
Facebook doesn’t have to pretend to be inclusive because the value proposition is pretty clear. For the spectacular price of zero, users get a fairly extensive set of tools to keep in touch with friends, family and their extended network. At the moment, Facebook can afford to be a dictatorship that treats its subjects with some care and kindness as it taxes them mercilessly on the details of their lives and then sells that big data to the highest bidder.
Part of the reason this model works is because of the nanny dilemma. We all like being taken care of, and having some problems and details dealt with for us. (Until, of course, we don’t.)
It comes down to the balance of power. In the long run, Facebook may be able to prove that the membership has no real quarrel with its perspective — that the company is always right. But the exact opposite credo — the customer is always right — has until now been the cornerstone of successful businesses (or at least so they claim).
And it’s true that most other companies make unilateral decisions and then reverse them after a customer outcry. But it’s one thing when the commodity is goods and services and another when the commodity is you.
Change to the Facebook Doctrine may only come when the number of monthly active users drops. But waiting to change course until then may be like trying to stop an avalanche. Since the history of social networks is that they always fail, some genuine respect for the community is simply prudent. The peasants don’t always rise up, but when revolution does come, it’s never pretty.
PHOTO: Facebook Chief Executive Mark Zuckerberg gestures as he addresses students at the Moscow State University in Moscow October 2, 2012. REUTERS/Maxim Shemetov