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Facebook proposes killing off user voting on policy changes

Brief flirtation with democracy put down

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Facebook is proposing to end its practice of allowing users to vote on corporate policy changes, after a three year experiment in digital democracy.

The company introduced the voting system in 2009 to diffuse anger raised after it sought to change its terms and conditions to give itself a license to all data, photos, and other information posted. User outrage forced a climb-down on that policy, and the institution of user voting on further changes followed shortly afterwards.

In a blog posting on Wednesday, the company said that, in essence, that was then and this is now. With Facebook now a publicly traded company with a billion users, this voting business has to go, argued Elliot Schrage, the company's vice president of communications.

"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," he said. "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."

This new process is essentially submitting questions directly to Facebook's chief privacy officer Erin Egan. They'll then be addressed by Egan in a regular webcast covering issues people have raised. These could be interesting sessions, given that the first question posted was, "Have you deleted the scumbags on, 'The Dead Baby Jokes' page, yet?"

Other changes proposed by the company include adding filtering tools for incoming messages, reminding users who can see their data when they post, timeline editing features, and "Changes to how we refer to certain products, like instant personalization."

In the latter case, Facebook is hooking up with third parties so that their websites can use its data to profile visitors. On the first visit, users are asked if they want to turn instant personalization on. If they agree, the site gets their age range, locale, and gender, along with data on all their friends who have public profiles.

The deadline set for comments on the new policies is 9am Pacific Time (5pm UT) on November 28. Egan will host a webcast to deal with issues raised, and then presumably a final vote will be taken to abolish voting rights – unless a lot of people get organized very quickly.

In changing its rules, Facebook frees itself up from this messy democracy business, although let's not get too carried away with how effective direct voting was. Flaws in Facebook's system were pointed out from the beginning, and getting 30 per cent of the global user base motivated to hit quorate levels ensured it was scarcely effective.

Nevertheless, the brief flowering of some kind of democratic process at Facebook is to be welcomed as only reasonable. Say what you like about Microsoft, but it does produce a product at the end of the day. With social networks, the members are the product being sold, so giving them some kind of say only seems fair. ®

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