Why I’m glad that the Facebook voting sham is finally almost over

Facebook is trying to stop you from voting on its future policy changes. And it’s the smartest thing it’s ever done.

Since April 2009, Facebook has notified its users whenever it planned to make any changes to its site governance. Meant to get users involved in the policies that shape the social network, the voting process has been held twice so far. And both times have been massive failures.

In the inaugural vote, only 665,654 of Facebook users participated  — a tiny number in comparison to the social network’s then-membership of 200 million people. The second vote, held earlier this year, was even worse. In this case, only 342,632 people voted —  just 0.038 percent of users.

As a result of this awful turnout, Facebook is now letting users decide whether it should get rid of the system entirely. That’s right — Facebook is using its broken voting system to decide whether to get rid of its broken voting system.

You have until December 10 to cast your vote, but unless 30 percent of the company’s users vote “no,” then the vote is merely advisory, and Facebook will go ahead with its new policy document, which eliminates user voting.

The game is rigged

As the world’s largest social network, Facebook is under constant scrutiny from just about every government body and privacy group out there. This, coupled with the overwhelming attentiveness of the modern press, prevents Facebook from doing much of anything without everyone instantly knowing about it. So what does the social network do? It creates a (rigged) system that gives its members a say in the changes it aims to make. If enough people dislike a proposed change, Facebook won’t follow through with it. This makes Facebook look good in the eyes of regulators because even if the turnout’s low, at least it can say that it tried.

Facebook RSUBut here’s where Facebook’s scheming comes in. One of the big limitations with its voting system is that it requires that 30 percent of its members vote in order to make the vote binding. Think about that. Facebook now has north of a billion users, which means that 300 million people — roughly the population of the United States — would need to vote in order to prevent its proposed policy changes from going into effect. If there was ever a system set up for failure, it’s this one.

Also, consider that for a social network built on ads, Facebook is really bad at letting its members know when its opening up new voting opportunities. Clearly, the social network isn’t going out of its way to get the word out.

Facebook’s real sin, though, is that it gave members the sense that their votes mattered in the first place. Were that the case, it would simply lower the 30 percent threshold to something smaller — or get rid of it altogether. But the problem is doing so would risk giving its community actual power, and that’s the last thing Facebook wants.

A Chinese democracy

It would be easy to call Facebook’s voting process a failed attempt at a democracy, or even a house of mirrors made to give members the false impression that their say actually counts.

But the truth is that Facebook isn’t a democracy all, nor is it just a social network anymore. It’s a company, and like any company it wants to make money. Asking members what they think about every new policy change isn’t going to help it do that.

Of course, it also doesn’t help that the Facebook community is as clueless and misinformed as a first time dad in the diaper aisle. Remember the so-called copyright disclaimers that made the rounds on everyone’s Facebook walls last month? While various news outlets pointed out that the messages meant essentially nothing, that hasn’t prevented Facebook members from continuing to think otherwise.

Facebook IPOThe incident, like every other Facebook privacy scare, underscores the basic reality about our relationship with the social network: We’re not paying a single cent to use it,  which means we’re not Facebook’s customers. 

Were Facebook any other company, expressing distaste with its business practices would be easy: We’d just stop buying whatever it sold. But we can’t do that with social networks. And Facebook knows it.

Facebook’s entire modus operandi right now is to make tiny incremental policy changes that few people know about and even fewer people care about. But even if the changes upset members, would they care enough to just stop using Facebook? Probably not.

The infinite Facebook flywheel

I don’t fault Facebook for being a company with financial concerns and a stable of money-hungry stockholders. Nor do I fault it for treating its users less like customers and more like organic packets of data. But what I do fault Facebook for is pretending as if anything else was the case.

The truth is that Facebook is no longer a nascent social network with a membership of 200 million people. It’s a sprawling flywheel of a company that serves roughly a seventh of the world’s population. The voting process may have made sense back when Facebook was still rapidly growing, but that’s no longer the case now the whole operation’s so massive.

Facebook knows that its voting mechanism is dead, and when it does die, the social network will be a whole lot better off. Why? Because it will show, finally and without question, that Facebook isn’t beholden to its community. And that’s a wakeup call that Facebook members desperately need.


VentureBeat is studying mobile marketing automation. Chime in, and we’ll share the data.