BERLIN - Mark Zuckerberg’s stated intention with Facebook was to create a space of participation. But now – instead of letting the site’s billion or so members participate in decisions that will forge the future of the social network – Facebook is phasing out the last possibility for them to cast a binding vote.
Just imagine if Germany’s Chancellor Angela Merkel announced an end to democratic elections, arguing that too many people with stupid ideas were involved in debating the issues and too few of them actually showed up to cast their ballot. Absurd? Well, that’s what Mark Zuckerberg has done. True, the 28-year-old entrepreneur created his own realm – a country called Facebook. But he did it with a promise to all those who migrated there that this was a place where the old world elite would no longer call the shots, a place where everybody could share things, join in, take part in the decision-making. It was all about democracy. But no more.
Facebook has just announced that it would no longer be asking members for their input when changing the rules – such as data protection rules. This is not just a technical detail. It is an open admission that maybe Zuckerberg wasn’t really serious about democracy. Fast money and power, on the other hand...
Since its beginnings, Facebook hasn’t exactly been exemplary when it comes to letting its members participate. Vote buttons were not prominently placed, and the 30% quorum needed for the site to heed voter preference was set too high. But instead of putting on their thinking caps and figuring out better ways for members to take part, Facebook declared its four-year experiment with participation a failure – thus forfeiting the opportunity to build a network that not only keeps advertisers, but also members happy.
At Harvard, Zuckerberg’s original idea for Facebook was an evaluation platform for fellow students. Later it became a marketing tool, for customers to decide on the composition of a shampoo for instance, or for Arab Spring youths to organize the fall of their despots. Some of what Facebook offered was a waste of time – but some of it enriched the world. Whatever the context, it was always about participation.
Zuckerberg himself, pushing the pathos button, made much of the participation aspect when his company went public last May. Small investors, he stressed, should be given a chance. Six months later they mainly have a big loss: after greedy investment bankers inflated the company’s true worth, the bubble burst and the stocks have lost nearly 40% of their value.
Money, money, money, in the rich man’s world
Mainly financed through advertising, Facebook has to find new ways to make it in addition to what it’s already doing – using member information to sell advertisers ever more targeted options, for instance. It’s also (as Google is doing) going to be sharing data with the Instagram photo service it recently bought. And members who want to have a say about that are nothing more than a disturbance.
The fact that Zuckerberg isn’t letting all those he drew to Facebook with false promises leave fair and square is even more morally reprehensible. Facebook has never been transparent on the subject of what it does with the data of people who delete their accounts. What’s more, the social network has had a monopoly for some time now. There may be networks that are a little more respectful of data, but what good are they if not a single one of your friends is a member?
Based on the number of people on Facebook, it’s the world’s third largest country. And the question of how it handles trust is going to determine the future of that country. Would somebody still post that he or she had a hangover if they thought their employer – or their health insurer – were going to see it?
As the ruler of the Facebook kingdom, it would be in Mark Zuckerberg’s own interest for a respectful community spirit to prevail. But he is apparently not prepared to give up even just a little bit of his power for that to happen.