Democracy dies on Facebook in an hour.
The night before Thanksgiving, Facebook quietly announced it wanted to end a process that's been in place since 2009 that allows users to vote on changes to the way the site's governed. Under that system:
If more than 7,000 users comment on the proposed change, then Facebook will hold a user vote on the change. If more than 30% of its active users vote (more than 300 million people, at last count), then Facebook will bind itself to the majority rule. (By way of comparison, approximately 120 million Americans voted in the presidential election of 2012.) If there is insufficient turnout, Facebook does what it wishes.
But Facebook is changing, making an increasingly clear choice that the company, not the user, is in control. That meant switching off Instagram photos in Twitter. And now it means switching off a right to vote that Facebook's users never quite seemed to know that they had.
Given the current rules, Facebook had to hold a vote on whether or not it could take away its users' right to vote. Voting ends today at 3 p.m. EST, and just under 700,000 users have exercised their right to vote — roughly the same number of users who participated in the initial vote that granted users the right to vote in the first place. The Facebook governance vote will fall roughly 299,000,000 votes short of the necessary number to count. Facebook democracy is ending because Facebook users lack the conviction to vote.
This is somewhat perverse, if you think about it: Political activists frequently decry "clicktivism" for devaluing genuine, risky, time-consuming activism, in part because clicking a mouse is so easy. Facebook voting is pure clicktivism — you don't have to get up from your desk and propel your body to the voting booth — but ease of voting doesn't add up to turnout. The plebiscite has more the feel of elections in post-Soviet nations, where the regime sets rules that ensure its victory, and where the first election typically ends all others.
Voting on the right to vote cannot muster more than a million participants.
That's not because Facebook is bad at making people click on things. Facebook is very good at it; in fact, it processes over 2.7 billion votes of a sort every day in the form of "likes." It's not even bad at talking about elections! There were over "71.7 million election related posts" in the United States on Election Day on Facebook, acccording to CNN, in no small part because Facebook put a ton of effort into its election features: Every U.S. resident 18 or older saw a prominent message at the top of their newsfeed encouraging them to vote — and once they had voted, it let them automatically share that with their friends. It's easy to see how Facebook could, if it really wanted to, easily cajole 300 million of its 1 billion users to vote on the right to vote.
But it doesn't want to, of course. It's the entity that's proposing ending the vote in the first place:
In the past, your substantive feedback has led to changes to the proposals we made. However, we found that the voting mechanism, which is triggered by a specific number of comments, actually resulted in a system that incentivized the quantity of comments over their quality. Therefore, we’re proposing to end the voting component of the process in favor of a system that leads to more meaningful feedback and engagement.
There is truth to the notion that a billion-person abolute democracy isn't the most effective way to administer a social platform, but — and this is key — under the current system, users officially have a say in how the site is governed, even if they never exercise it (which, again, Facebook could fix easily); under the new system, users hold no formal power in matters of site governance. Facebook governance is now a dictatorship.
The electoral apathy doesn't actually mean that Facebook users don't care about their data and content and how the site uses them. As Anil Dash points out, the Facebook privacy notice "with explicit calls for Facebook not to exploit their posted data" that became a copy-and-paste meme shows users care deeply — and Facebook's one-paragraph "fact check" is revealing. "Facebook sees a large-scale user protest as a problem to be solved, rather than as an opportunity to serve their community," Dash explains.
A revealing parallel can be found in Facebook's other high-profile battle. As the Facebook governance vote winds down, Instagram has blocked its images from showing up on Twitter — it wants you to consume images exclusively from the Instagram app or instagram.com because, as founder Kevin Systrom put it repeatedly, that's the best experience in their estimation.
The connection between the two is a curious turn of phrase. Systrom, as Michael Arrington notes, described the change as "an evolution of just where we are and where we want links from our content to go." (Emphasis Arrington's, and mine.) Not "your content" or "our users' content," but "our content." Instagram's content.
The same posture that led Instagram to pull its content off of Twitter — "a consequence of us doing the best thing for our business at this time," Systrom said — is leading Facebook to end the right of its users to vote on site governance. And the same dynamic is at play in Twitter effectively demanding that users see Twitter content exactly how Twitter wants them to see it. (Yes, third-party clients still exist, but their growth is crippled, and much like endangered species with limited breeding populations, they will eventually die out completely.)
Critics accuse these networks of showing contempt for their users. I'd characterize it more as an inability or an unwillingness to empathize, to feel what users are feeling. We don't always want to look at Instagram photos on instagram.com; we wanted to use Tweetbot to mute our annoying friends; we want to feel our privacy is respected by Facebook. Not that it matters. Perhaps it's a matter of scale or dollars or power or all of the above, but these social networks are betting, rightly, that users won't change. That they won't vote with the only tools left to them: their feet.