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Facebook Not Too Comfortable with Democracy

Facebook Governance LogoYou can’t please everybody all the time—especially when that “everybody” includes nearly a billion people. But Facebook’s not even trying any more: As much as Mark Zuckerberg claims to love transparency in messaging, decision-making and management, his company’s troubled flirtation with “democracy” appears to be on the wane.

Last week brought the announcement of what seems like the millionth round of changes to Facebook’s official privacy and “governance” policies. The changes concern “the integration of Instagram data” and revisions to “the filters for managing incoming messages”, and they’ll make it easier for Facebook to share its coveted data with partner organizations. While Facebook calls these changes “minor and beneficial to users”, many predictably disagreed and shared their opinions online. You’ve probably seen this status update at some point over the past week:

“I DO NOT AUTHORIZE the use of my personal data (text, photos, images, videos, comments or any content contained on my page now or in the past), under any pretext, for commercial or non-commercial purposes without my written and signed approval. Also, I REJECT AND DO NOT CONCEDE that Facebook stores messages, comments, images, videos or any other data I choose or chose to delete.”

The most interesting aspect of this story? Facebook has decided to abandon its attempts to imitate a “direct democracy” by allowing users to vote on proposed changes. As of this afternoon, you and the other 999 million people on the network will no longer have a direct say in this matter–or any other.

The system wasn’t particularly democratic in the first place. After announcing these planned changes, Facebook gave members seven days to vote on them–and judging by the vote percentages, most users weren’t too keen on the new policies: the count as of Friday evening was approximately 69,000 “yeas” versus nearly half a million “nays”. The only problem here is that Facebook’s official operating procedures require “more than 30 percent of all Facebook users…to vote against a proposal for it to be binding”. 30 percent of a billion is 300 million people, so the current vote is only 1/600th of the necessary total.

In other words, Facebook knew quite well that its users would never reach that number. You know, it’s almost like the whole “vote your preference” experiment was a farce.

To understand the conflict in this story, we have to remember that Mark Zuckerberg sits at the center of two diametrically opposed forces: one representing the needs and desires of his users and one representing the interests of his investors. While we don’t personally plan to boycott Facebook over these new policies, we do have a feeling that Zuck may face future challenges when trying to reconcile his two most important goals: keeping Facebook’s membership growing while extracting as much data (and revenue) as possible from individual users.

Can Zuckerberg please his members and his money men at the same time? How long can he maintain this current, increasingly precarious balance?

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