Facebook has been able to smoothly scale from, five years ago, a laptop in Mark Zuckerberg’s dorm to 175 million users today. At peak times, the service handles 10 million concurrent users. Facebook photos, just one section of the site, is serving 300,000 images per second at peak. Clearly, the FB engineering team has the chops to pull this off, where others would fall by the wayside.
In recent years, the bumps along the road for Facebook have not been technology, but in the area of governance and relationship with its users. Every year or so, it seems that Facebook introduces a feature or facility that has some users up in arms: the news feed, the social ads, the change in visual design, and now the flap over Terms of Service (TOS)
This latest flap began early in February, when Facebook made changes to its TOS that some users interpreted to mean they give total control to Facebook forever for their content. A firestorm of criticism ensued in the blogosphere. It is ironic that the TOS on some of these blogging sites (for users posting comments to that site) is expressed in language just as onerous as the Facebook TOS. The difference between Facebook and the average blogs is that Facebook users feel a sense of ownership, not just over their own words, photos and contacts, but also about the service and how it should function.
In my (non-legally trained) view, the flap seemd to be clear result of usual attempts by lawyers to reduce risk by putting a security blanket over the entire space of possibility. Just like engineers that build bridges to withstand a factor of 2 or 5 times greater than predicted maximum force, lawyers over-engineer contracts to cover all contingencies.
After sharp-eyed users noticed and complained, Facebook was forced to reverse its course. They retreated to the previous TOS and published an apology by Mark Zuckerberg (something he must be getting good at by now).
Today Facebook announced a new direction. They are renaming Terms of Service to “Statements of Rights and Responsibilities”. They are instituting a process which has the following aspects:
- they will notify users in advance whenever changes are considered, and solicit their feedback
- on certain matters, they will allow users to vote on proposed changes
- they will try to use plain English rather than legalistic language
They have boiled down 44 pages of legal verbiage, the aggregate of TOS for users, developers, and advertisers, into a 5 page draft Statement, now available for comment in a newly created group on FB.
With these moves, Facebook is stepping into uncharted territory, driven by the recognition that its population, if it were a country would be the sixth most populous nation, in terms of registered users. If you count only active users (unique monthly visitors) it is still in the top dozen, ahead of Germany, France or the UK.
Of course there are services over the Web that have many more users. There are more than 400 million users of Google search, or Microsoft email. But users don’t feel the same sense of ownership. I use electricity but I don’t have a personal relationship with it. There is some brand indentification (both Google and Microsoft have their share of loyalists, and there are consumer brands ranging from Starbucks to Harley Davidson that have strong brand loyalty). Facebook’s relationship with users is related to brand affinity but more about direct involvement.
The parallels to citizenship and participation in political bodies are clear. Facebook is aware of these parallels, and this awareness is reflected in their new approach, which has echoes of governing a state, province or country rather than a one-way delivery of a legal contract.
This can cut both ways.
- If Facebook manages to pull this off, to build a healthy and vibrant governance relationship with users, then it will prove to be a source of competitive advantage that goes beyond the “network effect”.
- on the other hand, if Facebook raises expectations to unrealistic levels and users find that their interests don’t align with those of FB (it is after all a private business, not a province or state), then there can be big trouble ahead.
I think that this challenge is not unique to Facebook. They just happen to be at the front of the pack in approaching this phenomenon. Over time, other consumer sites will have to rethink their user engagement strategy, and think less like an electric utility and more like a village, province or state.
What do you think?
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