The real failure of Facebook’s fake democracy

facebook likes

To the surprise of no one, Facebook on Tuesday announced that, despite an overwhelming majority of votes against changes to its privacy policy and terms of service, the social network would go ahead with its alterations to the site governance documents. Furthermore, Facebook will no longer allow users to vote on proposed changes to these user agreements – at least, not in the same way that it’s been doing since 2009.

As Facebook points out, the number of users who voted was less than 1 percent of its active user base of around 1 billion. In fact, the total number came in at only 668,882 votes – a significant jump from years past, but still an abysmal turn out. For the vote to have had any effect, 30 percent – or 300 million users – would have had to cast a ballot, according to Facebook’s rules.

Many commentators (including this one) have criticized Facebook for setting an absurdly high threshold for the vote; getting 300 million people to do anything that doesn’t involve eating, talking, breathing, or having sex in a single week is next to impossible. And now that the vote is done (for good), critics are taking shots at Facebook users themselves. Hell, even Facebook is blaming it all on us.

“We made substantial efforts to inform our users and encourage them to vote, both through emails and their news feeds,” wrote Facebook’s Elliot Schrage in Tuesday’s post. “Despite these efforts and widespread media coverage, less than one percent of our user community of more than one billion participated.”

If you take that criticism seriously, an easy conclusion to make is that we are all just a bunch of apathetic fools who gripe and moan when Facebook wants to change anything, but the can’t get off our lazy bums to do anything about it.

But I have another theory: We simply don’t have time to read all these policies. And Facebook likely knew that from the very beginning.

Getting involved with these changes required reading Facebook’s massive legal documents, parsing out all the proposed changes while also looking to policy experts to help us decipher what exactly Facebook wanted to change, then figuring out our own opinions about them. It’s part of my job to read through documents like this, which I do on a weekly basis, and I still had trouble finding the time to get through all the mumbo jumbo Facebook proposed. It’s difficult to imagine 3,000 people – let alone 300 million – having the hours in their day to rifle through it all.

So difficult, in fact, that I cannot for a moment believe that Facebook ever thought enough people would take the time to review their policy changes and vote on them. It wasn’t just that the company set the threshold for voting too high, but the entire concept of making users review policy changes was flawed from the start: Not once in the three years that Facebook allowed users to vote on changes did user turnout come even remotely close to the numbers need to make a difference. Do any of us really think this was an accident?

Of course, Facebook’s fake experiment with democracy is not the real issue here. The actual problem lies with terms of services and privacy policies in general: They are too long, too confusing, and, because of this, almost entirely ignored. If Facebook should change anything, it should not be its voting process or how it collects user feedback; it should be the verbose and abstract nature of the policies themselves.

We deserve to know exactly what data Facebook and every other online service is collecting about us, and exactly how they are using and sharing that information. The current way of doing that – long legal documents – isn’t working. We need a new way, one that doesn’t require users to set aside entire afternoons just to figure out what the heck is going on.

Solving this problem is no easy task, I know. So if Facebook really wants to make a difference, it should not just get feedback on specific policy changes, but on how to change the long-winded, confusing nature of the policies themselves to better serve us, the users.

Have an idea for how to make website terms and policies better? Let us know in the comments.

Emerging Tech

Here’s how Facebook taught its Portal A.I. to think like a Hollywood filmmaker

When Facebook introduced its Portal screen-enhanced smart speakers, it wanted to find a way to make video chat as intimate as sitting down for a conversation with a friend. Here's how it did it.

Your PlayStation 4 game library isn't complete without these games

Looking for the best PS4 games out there? Out of the massive crop of titles available, we selected the best you should buy. No matter what your genre of choice may be, there's something here for you.

Having enough RAM is important, but stick to these guidelines to save some money

Although not quite as exciting as processors and graphics cards, RAM is one of the most important parts of your PC. Not having enough can hurt performance. So, how much RAM do you need?
Product Review

The Division 2 feels more like a revision, but fans will love it

If the private beta is any indication, The Division 2 is shaping up to be a better version of the original, rather than a brand-new experience. That said, the game is looking quite great.
Social Media

‘Instagram egg’ embarks on a new adventure as man behind it is unmasked

The Instagram egg made global headlines recently after it became the most-liked post on the photo-sharing app. The person behind the account has now been revealed, as has his reason for choosing an egg for the stunt.
Social Media

Periscope tool adds guests to feeds so streamers can become talk show hosts

Periscope users can now invite viewers to chime into the conversation with more than just the comment tool. By enabling the option to add guests, livestreamers can add guests to the conversation, in audio format only.

Crouching, climbing, and creeping, the perfect Instagram shot knows no bounds

Just how far will you go for the perfect Instagram? A recent survey shows just how willing Instagram users -- and Instagram husbands -- are to climb, lie down, embarrass themselves or let their food go cold for the perfect shot.
Social Media

Facebook’s long-promised ‘unsend’ feature arrives. Here’s how to use it

Send a message to the wrong person? Messenger now gives you 10 minutes to take it back. After an update beginning to roll out today, users can now retract messages if they act within the first 10 minutes after sending the message.
Social Media

YouTube boss admits even her own kids gave the ‘Rewind’ video a thumbs down

YouTube's 2018 Rewind video went down like a lead balloon at the end of last year, becoming the most disliked video in its history. And now YouTube's CEO has admitted that even her own kids thought it was pretty darn awful.
Social Media

Snapchat finally recovers from its redesign — so here comes an Android update

Snapchat's drop in users after launching a controversial redesign has finally stagnated. During the fourth quarter and 2018 earnings report, Snapchat shared that the company is rolling out an Android update designed to increase performance.
Social Media

Skype’s new ‘blur background’ feature could help keep you from blushing

Skype's latest feature for desktop lets you blur your background during video calls. The idea is that it keeps you as the focus instead of distracting others with whatever embarrassing things you might have on show behind you.
Social Media

Twitter users are declining but more people are seeing ads every day

Twitter's end-of-the-year report for 2018 is a mix of good and bad news. The good news is that more users are seeing adds daily, the metric the company will focus on moving forward. But the bad news is that monthly active users are…

Switch up your Reddit routine with these interesting, inspiring, and zany subs

So you've just joined the wonderful world of Reddit and want to explore it. With so many subreddits, however, navigating the "front page of the internet" can be daunting. Here are some of the best subreddits to get you started.

YouTube beats Apple, Netflix as the most trusted brand by millennials

The popular video sharing website YouTube climbed up in an annual Mblm study, moving up from third place in 2018 and coming ahead of both Apple and Netflix in final 2019 rankings.