You were probably as surprised as I was to get this in an email from Facebook last Wednesday.

“We recently announced some proposed updates to our Data Use Policy, which explains how we collect and use data when people use Facebook, and our Statement of Rights and Responsibilities (SRR), which explains the terms governing use of our services,” Elliot Schrage, vice president of communications, public policy and marketing wrote to Facebook’s 1 billion+ users.

“We are proposing to end the voting component to provide a more meaningful environment for feedback.”

Wait. Facebook users can vote?

We still can, apparently. Though probably not for long.

In 2009, Facebook instituted a policy where changes it proposed to those two key documents would be open for public comment, and, if the proposals get 7,000 comments, would be put to a vote of the users. If 30 percent of all users say no, the proposed changes don’t happen.

The comment period will stay, if Facebook’s recent proposed changes take effect. But the voting will be history.

I don’t know what’s weirder. The fact that Facebook will effectively ask users to vote on whether they can vote, or the fact that I didn’t know I had a vote until Facebook told me it wanted to take it away.

First, what you need to know. If you want to help trigger this vote, you can leave your comments on the latest round of Facebook’s proposed changes (the voting measure plus other, mostly mundane things)  on the Facebook Governance page by 9 a.m. PST this morning. It’s already got more than 20,000 comments, though, so a vote is probably already coming.

Now for some context.

Mónica Guzmán

Facebook has put this little known voting policy in action only twice. The first time was in 2009, when it proposed the governance policy it wants to repeal. The proposal drew the necessary 7,000 comments to trigger a vote, but only 665,654 votes were cast, far fewer than would have been required to change course when 200 million people were on the site.

The second time was this June. Again, it got far more than the required 7,000 comments to trigger a vote, though many were cut-and-pasted from the website of a group called Facebook vs. Europe. Again, it didn’t matter.  The vote failed to get anywhere near the numbers needed to represent 30 percent of the site’s then 900 million users.

What a way to draw out the tension between Facebook as a service and Facebook as a lifestyle, Facebook as a company and Facebook as a, well, society.

Facebook wants to take away the ability it gave you to vote on changes to its user privacy policies because, it says, it’s gotten too big and too beholden to new regulations, as a publicly traded company, for that to seem necessary or even reasonable.

It’s also seen the voting mechanism result in, as Schrage put it, “a system that incentivized the quantity of comments over their quality.” In other words, many people left comments without showing they had any idea what they objected to. It appears Facebook vs. Europe did most of the damage on that front. Even today, many if not most of the comments on Facebook’s proposed changes are just the text the group commands its followers to post: “I oppose the changes and want a vote about the demands on”

Still, I chuckled when I imagined that argument coming from somewhere in Congress. “Americans’ votes are so much more about quantity than quality. They’re not even bothering to learn about the candidates. So, you know, we think it’s better to just take their vote away.”

It may sound absurd to compare Facebook to a country, but there’s an insight to gain here.

Ever hear someone complain about some awful thing Facebook does but never once say they’ll leave the site? I’ve listened more than a few times as people lay out the latest grievance with a sense of offense but also entitlement. Comments pointing this out get a lot of likes on stories about Facebook’s latest privacy abomination: No one’s forcing you to use Facebook. If you don’t like it, leave.

But it’s not that easy, is it?

Facebook is not a mere product, or even a service. It’s become, as Microsoft researcher Danah Boyd pointed out all of two years ago, a utility — as essential to the progress of our day to day lives as electricity and running water.

Sure, you hear people say they’ll move to Canada if their presidential candidate loses the election. But they’re still here, right? Dissent in America is not a choice between staying or going. The same can be said of Facebook. Despite many attempts to create movements to abandon the site, people have shown that they have roots there they don’t want to pull up. So they do what any citizen of a democracy would do.

They protest.

But just like in the United States, many protests are based more on fear than fact.

This week thousands of Facebook users posted on their walls a statement stuffed with self-assured legalese they believed would protect their ownership over their content and force Facebook to get written permission to use their content “commercially.”

Two things were wrong with this. One, users already own the copyright to whatever they post on Facebook. They always have. Second, Facebook already uses your content commercially. They run ads against it. They even run ads using it. All the time.

Facebook isn’t a country. It’s a company. It’s got the right to make its own decisions. But should it take away users’ ability to vote on its policies?

By leaving the comment period intact in its proposed governance policy, Facebook seems to be acknowledging that its users — its citizens — have to vent. But without a voting mechanism to give people some sure path to effect change, even if we don’t always take it (more notice would be nice!), the comments have no bite. So why bother?

Thirty percent of Facebook’s 1 billion users is a lot of people. I don’t think I’m being too pessimistic when I say it would take a miracle to save their ability to vote with a vote.

Either Facebook reinstitutes the voting mechanism itself or it shows that it hears us when it matters by more directly, more noticeably acting on the cues it gets from its users.

A little notice would be nice.

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  • Guest

    I don’t think Facebook users should be allowed to vote, Monica. If they are to be allowed to speak, the users should not have binding power over the site.
    Facebook exists, Monica, because of the vision of one man, Mark Zuckerberg. Mark didn’t go out on SurveyMonkey to ask a billion people what they wanted in a Facebook. He built it. He innovated. He won. He’s now worth tens of billions of dollars precisely because he innovated on behalf of, instead of listening directly to, his users.
    A good friend once told me that if Henry Ford had asked his customer base what they wanted in a car, he would have built a faster horse. That’s so true. Most technology users frankly don’t understand the first thing about what makes Facebook Facebook, and for that reason, we shouldn’t let them vote.
    For an example of what you get when you let consensus drive development, take a look at Appnet, Digg, and Wikipedia. Do you really want Facebook to have the same quality as them?
    Thank you again, Monica.

  • Guest

    Facebook users vote everyday when they use the site.

  • Orin O’Neill

    Monica, Facebook is a *distraction*… something nobody with a functional life should waste the kind of energy on that many people seem to. That it will one day go the way of MySpace is inevitable; people will move on to something else, as they always do.

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