Calling Bullsh*t on the Facebook Governance Vote

April 24, 2009

Well, Facebook users’ votes on the proposed Terms and Conditions are in – all 650,000 of them – and the company is pleased to report that 75% of the voters approved!

Hang on a moment, though – they only got 650,000 votes? I thought they wanted 30% of the Facebook user population to participate…

Since Facebook claims over 200,000,000 users – 650K is less than one third of one percent. Thirty percent would have been 60 million votes, not a measly 650 thousand.

That’s as if the United States held a national vote to reform the constitution and only the state of Montana voted…And then somebody described the election as a success.

In fact, since only 75% – or 450,000 of the 650,000 voters actually approved of the new T and C, it is more accurate to say that less than one quarter of one percent of the Facebook population supports this proposal.

So the equivalent in a U.S. election would be if the entire population of Memphis, Tennessee voted in favor of amending the constitution; the population of Spokane, Washington voted against the amendment; and the rest of the country just sat it out on the sidelines.

Since Facebook spokes-persons seem to indicate that the company intends to accept this vote as a sufficient mandate for adopting the new T and C, they are turning my snarky twilight zone scenario into a reality.

Here’s Facebook’s chart of the results (as re-published on the LA Times’ Technology blog):

Facebook Governance Vote Results

Facebook Governance Vote Results (credit: Facebook.com and latimes.com)

…and here’s my chart of the same results (sorry for the fuzzy image – feel free to take 5 minutes and bake your own if you want a better one):

Facebook Governance vote: go, go gadget democracy!

Facebook Governance fail

Such a woeful mockery would be even funnier if it weren’t so sad.  Go, go, gadget, democracy!

I draw two conclusions:

1. Facebook has been hoisted by their own petard and they probably deserve whatever they get. This was a well-intentioned – but nevertheless naive – stunt from the beginning. It’s unfortunate that nobody at FB saw fit to back up all the rhetoric of user-generated revolution with a more meaningful participatory process.

2. Legitimate democracy is really, really hard. It doesn’t matter if it’s online or not. It’s not as simple as just holding a vote and hoping everyone will show up. It’s also not as simple as saying that the Facebook users were irresponsible because they didn’t show up. You have to build a culture of democracy in order to support democratic institutions like elections. That doesn’t happen overnight and it may be that a population like the users of Facebook isn’t sufficiently organized or engaged to begin that process.

Like it or not, this is going to serve as an object lesson for the other companies tinkering with participatory media and more demcoratic forms of online community governance.  I don’t think they will try anything like this for a long time (if ever) and that’s sad.
What would I like to see happen next? I would love Facebook to own-up to the failure of this process. Their credibility is not threatened by admitting that such a poorly-designed experiment, it is threatened if they do not admit it – which is exactly what they’re doing right now.
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4 Responses to “Calling Bullsh*t on the Facebook Governance Vote”

  1. jilliancyork Says:

    Yikes! Between this and their seeming lack of desire to clarify amendment 4.3 (effectively banning users in 5 countries – despite private explanations of the rule only applying to commercial use of Facebook) I think we’ve hit #facebookfail.

    • aaron Says:

      Definitely – and thanks for reminding me about the nastiness of amendment 4.3 – I forgot to include it in this post!

  2. Pablo Says:

    I think it was a good try, considering that the ‘outcry’ to the changes in FB’s policy was pretty much limited to a few geeks & a whole lotta law geeks. Whether they admit the experiment failed or not will likely only matter to to the same people who cared in the first place.

    It seemed to me that since a lot more people were upset over the changes to user homepages, Facebook would have been better off building the platform’s ‘democracy’ by putting those changes to vote first & spreading the word about the vote through the groups millions of people joined in protest.

    Regardless, I’d love to see data on how the vote broke down, esp. geographic concentrations of voters.

  3. Pablo Says:

    Also, Facebook seems to own up to the process’ shortcomings. Ullyot doesn’t outright say it was a failure, but he doesn’t go so far as to say it was a success either. Instead, it reads to me like he admits that it was an experiment that the company can build upon. Perhaps this was the foundational experiment of your “culture of democracy”?


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