Facebook's 'Truman Show' Democracy
BY Micah L. Sifry | Sunday, March 15 2009
Here's my and Andrew Rasiej's latest Politics 2.0 column, which ran in the Politico last Thursday.
If Facebook were a country, it would be the world’s seventh biggest in terms of population. In terms of the amount of attention it draws daily from its 175 million members — roughly 20 to 30 minutes on average spent updating their profiles, reading about their friends, playing games and sharing news — Facebook could easily power a midsize economy.
Here in the United States, we already know that Facebook is a meaningful platform for political engagement: from President Barack Obama on down, thousands of politicians, candidates and causes have built presences on the site, accumulating millions of supporters.
Given all the social and political activity on Facebook, some questions arise: Is Facebook a public square, like a town hall or village green? Or is it more like a private mall? Do Facebook’s members have rights? Should they have a say in the governing of the site? And how might that work?
These may seem like fanciful topics to explore, but after an announcement by Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg two weeks ago, they’re hardly coming out of left field. Responding to protests from thousands of Facebook members to a sudden and seemingly draconian change in the site’s terms of service, which was criticized as giving the company too much unilateral control over the content people post, Zuckerberg declared: “Our main goal at Facebook is to help make the world more open and transparent. We believe that if we want to lead the world in this direction, then we must set an example by running our service in this way.” The company announced that it was rolling back the proposed terms of service change, instead posting drafts of a new companywide Statement of Principles and an accompanying list of User Rights and Responsibilities and inviting comments.
In addition, the company created a “virtual town hall” for discussion of these documents and promised, “If more than 7,000 users comment ... we will also give you the opportunity to participate in a vote in which you will be provided alternatives.” Even more unusual, the company vowed, “The vote shall be binding on us if more than 30 percent of all active registered users” vote.
At first glance, this looks like an unprecedented and brave step toward a kind of “user democracy.” Speaking with us earlier, Chris Kelly, Facebook’s chief privacy officer, said, “There have been a number of internal discussions on how we might effectively enfranchise users and, at the same time, get to legally binding terms of service. Mark [Zuckerberg] was dedicated to the idea that users would have real power.”
But if you look more closely, this isn’t a real democratic process. The possibility of 52 million registered Facebook users (30 percent) voting on a change in the company’s governance is exceedingly unlikely — especially as it has done next to nothing to tell users that the virtual town halls are happening. Imagine if the governor of Illinois announced a special election to select a new U.S. senator by placing one classified ad in tiny type in every newspaper. If Facebook is a democracy, right now its town hall process looks like something straight out of “The Truman Show”: seemingly real but with a benevolent director-dictator somewhere off in the shadows, keeping things under control.
Nevertheless, more than 10,000 Facebook users are participating in the discussion on the proposed governing documents. It will be very interesting to see if the company heeds their concerns. Many want to see changes in a proposed section that gives Facebook a “worldwide license” to any content they post on the site. Others were also disturbed to see the company claiming the right to display ads on the site without clearly labeling them as such, in clear contrast to Zuckerberg’s rhetoric about transparency. The comment period ends March 31, so we will soon be able to see its results.
And the idea of the denizens of Facebook gaining real power over the world they inhabit isn’t that farfetched. Social software expert Adina Levin writes on BookBlog, “In the online world, if tenants demand rights and organize, they will eventually get them. ... The member revolt on Facebook could be part of an overall change in expectation about the relationship between digital landowners and digital tenants.”
She’s absolutely right. Right now, Facebook may appear all-powerful because so many people rely on it. Scattered protests from a relatively small group of users hardly represent a threat — though past experience has shown that the very tools that make interesting news travel so quickly on Facebook could easily spread word of a rebellion fairly quickly.
Zuckerberg is right to look for ways to respond to, and at least appear to be listening to, these concerns. Hopefully the dialogue he started two weeks ago will continue, and his example will prompt other companies to also explore their responsibilities to their constituencies. We could all learn from the experience.