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Facebook-ocracy: Company Accepts the Will of the Majority of a Minority

BY Nancy Scola | Friday, April 24 2009

I'll admit that I have a hard time getting worked up about the fact that a for-profit, private company is holding engaging in a democratic experiment. Facebook likes to talk about itself as having a user base so large that "it would be the sixth most populated country in the world." But that country would be Qatar. Sure, the living's good and the monarch's benevolent. But are we're kidding ourselves to think that we're not busying ourselves in a playground of our rulers' making? No, Qatar's not the den of unhinged dictatorality that is today's Zimbabwe. But it's not exactly democratic France, is it?

That's a meandering and cynical introduction to the news that Facebook has announced the results of a popular "Site Governance" vote over revisions to its Statement of Rights and Responsibilities and Facebook Principles document. To their credit, Mark Zuckerberg et al have been looking for ways to be more responsive to their user base after resentment bubbled up over unilateral changes to its terms of service. Micah and Andrew detailed the run-up to the vote here several weeks back.

The result? More than 600,000 people voted. And about 75% selected option (a), the version of operating principles vetted on the site rather than option (b), the company's original documents.

Voter turnout, as it were, came in at just .3% of Facebook's 200 million users. Facebook general counsel Ted Ullyot gently chided the apathetic masses, blogging, "We made significant efforts to make voting easy and to give everyone the opportunity to vote -- including by translating the documents and voting application into several of the most popular languages on the site, showing a message about the vote on users' home pages, and running advertisements and videos across Facebook promoting the vote." He noted, though, that while "we'd hoped to have a bigger turnout for this inaugural vote," it was worth keeping it mind that "this vote was a first for users just like it was a first for Facebook."

But, also worth keeping in mind is that the Statement of Rights and Responsibilities is actually a governing document providing for this and future rounds of voting on site changes. As such, it requires the participation of 30% of the user base -- or 100 times greater participation than this round got -- for the results to stick. Facebook's reaction, though, argues in favor of the idea that thems that run the site makes the rules. Ullyot noted that the company might simply change the terms of the democratic experiment: "We're going to consider lowering the 30-percent threshold that the Statement of Rights and Responsibilities establishes for a user vote to be binding."

UPDATE: Heh. From a commenter on an LA Times piece on the vote: "If Facebook knew its audience better, it would have sent out a 'Five most important Facebook policies' quiz and everybody would have participated."
Too true.