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Facebook governance vote is a homework assignment no one did

April 23, 2009 |  4:55 pm
Facebook-results

Facebook governance results a few minutes before the voting closed. Credit: Facebook.com

Updated, 8:44 a.m.: Facebook says it will ignore the 30% threshold this time and consider the results valid.

By the time voting closed today at noon Pacific time, only 0.32% of Facebook's users had weighed in on the question of whether the site's lengthy new policy documents were better than the lengthy old ones.

About 75% of that 0.32% chose the newer policy, while the rest chose the old. But the election won't count anyway: Facebook said that for the results to be valid, 30% of its roughly 200 million users would have to weigh in. That's about 100 times more than the 0.32% of people who actually did.

Why did Facebook so grossly overestimate interest in its experiment with online government?

Start with the subject of the vote itself: New terms of service vs. old terms of service. Global warming, civil rights or nuclear disarmament this is not. The issue can't even rightly be said to be black and white. It doesn't help that the new terms -- though written in more concise and readable language -- substantially overlap with the old ones. Both new and old documents describe licensing terms, rules of user conduct, account termination and several other minor technical matters.

The documents are so similar that in order to figure out the differences, you've got to read both documents side to side, and/or refer to a confusing third document that tries to explicate some of the changes. Suffice it to say that even figuring out what you're voting on -- if anything -- takes an hour of eye-strain. Most of Facebook's high school and college-age users already have enough government homework to do, and its grown-up users are either trying to find jobs or keep their current ones, so voting on the future of a website's small print may not have been a priority.

There have been signs recently that Facbook has allowed its sense of self-importance to grow rather inflated. In a recent video, CEO Mark Zuckergberg grandiosely compared the site to a real nation, noting that, population-wise, it "would be the fifth-largest country in the world" and that it therefore merited "a more transparent and democratic approach to governing."

In its own eyes, Facebook has become more than merely a recreational website where users share photos and wish each other a happy birthday -- it is now a global body of citizens that should be united and protected under a popularly ratified constitution.

But it's hard to have a democracy, a constitution or a government if nobody shows up to participate.  Which means, presumably, that the pretense of democracy will be now abandoned and things will go back to normal. Facebook will make its own decisions about how it wants to run its business, and when users disagree, they'll scream bloody murder. It's the natural order of the Internet; why mess with it?

-- David Sarno

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