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"Open Governance": Seizing the Facebook Moment

BY Nancy Scola | Friday, February 27 2009

About two weeks ago, a contingent of Facebook users took the company to the woodshed for sudden changes in its terms of service, that, they feared, would give the company far-reaching rights over the photos, wall posts, and personal tidbits posted on site. Whether that episode chastened or inspired the company isn't clear, but yesterday the company indeed changed tack. As CNET's Rafe Needleman reports, Facebook announced that from here forward the site's statement of principles and "rights and responsibilities" will be put to the public and vetted through virtual town halls.

Now, it's not like the change exactly hands the reigns of the company to the masses. Facebook, it seems, will make the final decision about what ultimately goes into its guiding documents. (Though somewhat reassuring is that Facebook seems newly self-aware that the world is watching how they negotiate that process. Yesterday's announcement included a line from Privacy International director Simon Davies: "The devil will be in the detail.") And CEO Mark Zuckerberg took pains in a conference call yesterday to note that this is "about policy, not product."

Facebook does, though, seem to be signaling that it (finally) gets that its users are actually partners in the enterprise in a somewhat unique and strange way. And those partners have a unique sort of stake in a company whose valuation is hugely dependent on the social media brilliance we all pour into the site. Facebook's still a private corporation, sure. But recent events have shown that users feel a sort of ownership over the social platform that's more akin to the relationship you have to a social club -- or even the government. Zuckerberg, for one, taps into the recent fever over government transparency and openness:

History tells us that systems are most fairly governed when there is an open and transparent dialogue between the people who make decisions and those who are affected by them. We believe history will one day show that this principle holds true for companies as well, and we're looking to moving in this direction with you.

So there's a temptation to dismiss a more "open and transparent" Facebook corporate stunt and Zuckerberg as a savvy CEO exploiting the hot political framing of the moment. But Facebook opened the door on idea that its constituency will help drive this endeavor from here on out, and some smart users are already stepping through that door. More on that in a bit.