I thought of LambdaMOO and the Wizards’ abdication, of course, the moment I saw the new announcement at the top of my Facebook page this morning:

announcement from Facebook

LambdaMOO was one of the famous communities of the nineties: a text-based virtual world with thousands of inhabitents (users), where anyone could extend the world, where bizarre conversations and art and experimentation was constantly going on, where an intricate form of democracy prevaded, with petitions and votes and endless discussions. You could log onto LambdaMOO at any time of the day or night and always find interesting things going on.

lambdaMOO login screen

LambdaMOO was started by Pavel Curtis and other programmers. They were the Wizards and could do anything possible to do in code. If your user was a programmers you could do a lot with the code, but you couldn’t, in general, change other peoples’ code, you’d have to create your own objects. Builders could make some new things, but with less finesse than programmers. Facebook doesn’t call the programming team Wizards, but they might as well.

In the beginning, LambdaMOO was governed by the Wizards. But in 1993, the Wizards abdicated:

So, as the last social decision we make for you, and whether or not you independent adults wish it, the wizards are pulling out of the discipline/manners/arbitration business; we’re handing the burden and freedom of that role to the society at large. We will no longer be the right people to run to with complaints about one another’s behavior, etc. The wings of this community are still wet (as anyone can tell from reading *social-issues), but I think they’re strong enough to fly with.

After that, of course, much mess ensued, including the Rape in Cyberspace Julian Dibbell so famously analysed (and his entertaining yet incisive article should be required reading for any student of digital cultures). As Steve Jones concisely describes in his entry on LambdaMOO for the Encyclopedia of New Media, this mess led to intricate social self-governance, with formally agreed-upon systems of petitions, discussions and votes. The total anarchy left by the Wizards’ abdication didn’t work. The most interesting thing about this is that there was a point at which the program created by the Wizards in a sense no longer belonged to them. It was a world and as such, belonged to its inhabitants.

Facebook’s business team isn’t abdicating. I doubt they’ll ever give up the power to, say, arbitrarily delete accounts, or delete photos of nursing mothers. But they are to some extent admitting that their system has become more than just a program. It’s a community, or many communities, and like most communities, very resistant to dictatorship.

So Facebook is trying a kind of semi-democracy, as they describe in yesterday’s blog post. They’ll drop the legalese and try to write things in a way that is intended to communicate with users and not confuse them. They’ve proposed two documents that will be like constitutions for Facebook: the Facebook Principles and the Statement of Rights and Responsibilities. They’ve given each a group for discussions, and promise to put them to a general vote before the go into effect. They also explicitly reserve the right to make technical changes – such as when they implemented the news feed or more recently changed the interface – without any vote or input from the users. And of course, in many ways it’s the technical affordances and limitations of the system that really affect our day-to-day lives.

So Facebook-the-business certainly hasn’t abdicated like LambdaMOO’s Wizards did. And their democracy is very limited. Will there ever be a system for general users to petition for changes, for instance? Technically, one can certainly imagine using the group structure and saying that if you can get X members to support this petition, it must be put to a general vote or something like that.

The question is whether Facebook still sees itself primarily as a business or as a community, a “world”. When I first read this paragraph from yesterday’s blog post I thought they were starting to see themselves as a world:

Our main goal at Facebook is to help make the world more open and transparent. We believe that if we want to lead the world in this direction, then we must set an example by running our service in this way.

But I suspect they mean the world outside Facebook (what do you think?).

I think Facebook’s users do not see Facebook as a business. To us, it’s a place where we meet and communicate with our friends and familys. It’s a place we inhabit and where we leave traces of ourselves. It’s a world – and that’s why “Terms of service” jar so horribly with our expectations.

It’s going to be really interesting to see how Facebook continues to balance between being a world and being a business.

2 thoughts on “facebook democratisation: the balance between community and business

  1. […] jill/txt | facebook democratisation: the balance between community and business jill writes about the new invite from Facebook to its user to participate in developing the terms of service of FB: It‚Äôs going to be really interesting to see how Facebook continues to balance between being a world and being a business. (tags: Facebook termsofservice participation) […]

  2. Toward a Facebook bill of rights

    […] ‚Ä¢¬† jill/txt: [facebook democratisation: the balance between community and business] […]

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