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net.wars: Democracy theater

by Wendy M Grossman | posted on 23 November 2012


So Facebook is the latest to discover that it's hard to come up with a governance structure online that functions in any meaningful way. This week, the company announced plans to disband the system of voting on privacy changes that it put in place in 2009. To be honest, I'm surprised it took this long.

Wendy M Grossman

Techcrunch explains the official reasons. First, with 1 billion users, it's now too easy to hit the threshold of 7,000 comments that triggers a vote on proposed changes. Second, with 1 billion users, amassing the 30 percent of the user base necessary to make the vote count has become…pretty much impossible. (Look, if you hate Facebook's policy changes, it's easier to simply stop using the system. Voting requires engagement.) The company also complained that the system as designed encourages comments' "quantity over quality". Really, it would be hard to come up with an online system that didn't unless it was so hard to use that no one would bother anyway.

The fundamental problem for any kind of online governance is that no one except some lawyers thinks governmance is fun. (For an example of tedious meetings producing embarrassing results, see this week's General Synod.) Even online, where no one can tell you're a dog watching the Outdoor Channel while typing screeds of debate, it takes strong motivation to stay engaged. That in turn means that ultimately the people who participate, once the novelty has worn off, are either paid, obsessed, or awash in free time.

The people who are paid – either because they work for the company running the service or because they work for governments or NGOs whose job it is to protect consumers or enforce the law – can and do talk directly to each other. They already know each other, and they don't need fancy online governmental structures to make themselves heard.

The obsessed can be divided into two categories: people with a cause and troublemakers – trolls. Trolls can be incredibly disruptive, but they do eventually get bored and go away, IF you can get everyone else to starve them of the oxygen of attention by just ignoring them.

That leaves two groups: those with time (and patience) and those with a cause. Both tend to fall into the category Mark Twain neatly summed up in: "Never argue with a man who buys his ink by the barrelful." Don't get me wrong: I'm not knocking either group. The cause may be good and righteous and deserving of having enormous amounts of time spent on it. The people with time on their hands may be smart, experienced, and expert. Nonetheless, they will tend to drown out opposing views with sheer volume and relentlessness.

All of which is to say that I don't blame Facebook if it found the comments process tedious and time-consuming, and as much of a black hole for its resources as the help desk for a company with impenetrable password policies. Others are less tolerant of the decision. History, however, is on Facebook's side: democratic governance of online communities does not work.

Even without the generic problems of online communities which have been replicated mutatis mutandem since the first modem uploaded the first bit, Facebook was always going to face problems of scale if it kept growing. As several stories have pointed out, how do you get 300 million people to care enough to vote? As a strategy, it's understandable why the company set a minimum percentage: so a small but vocal minority could not hijack the process. But scale matters, and that's why every democracy of any size has representative government rather than direct voting, like Greek citizens in the Acropolis. (Pause to imagine the complexities of deciding how to divvy up Facebook into tribes: would the basic unit of membership be nation, family, or circle of friends, or should people be allocated into groups based on when they joined or perhaps their average posting rate?)

The 2009 decision to allow votes came a time when Facebook was under recurring and frequent pressure over a multitude of changes to its privacy policies, all going one way: toward greater openness. That was the year, in fact, that the system effectively turned itself inside out. EFF has a helpful timeline of the changes from 2005 to 2010. Putting the voting system in place was certainly good PR: it made the company look like it was serious about listening to its users. But, as the Europe vs Facebook site says, the choice was always constrained to old policy or new policy, not new policy, old policy, or an entirely different policy proposed by users.

Even without all that, the underlying issue is this: what company would want democratic governance to succeed? The fact is that, as Roger Clarke observed before Facebook even existed, social networks have only one business model: to monetize their users. The pressure to do that has only increased since Facebook's IPO, even though founder Mark Zuckerberg created a dual-class structure that means his decisions cannot be effectively challenged. A commercial company- especially a *public* commercial company – cannot be run as a democracy. It's as simple as that. No matter how much their engagement makes them feel they own the place, the users are never in charge of the asylum. Not even on the WELL.


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Facebook discontinues user voting

Wendy M. Grossman’s Web site has an extensive archive of her books, articles, and music, and an archive of all the earlier columns in this series. Readers are welcome to post here, at net.wars home, follow on Twitter or send email to netwars(at) skeptic.demon.co.uk (but please turn off HTML).