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Is Facebook Finally Going To Do Something Interesting?

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Gillmor Gang 02.10.12 (TCTV)

I can think of few subjects less interesting than Facebook’s forthcoming IPO. There, I said it.

I honestly don’t get what the big deal is. So a few thousand people will finally liquidize their locked-up wealth, and the hoi polloi will at last be able to buy Facebook shares. Stop the presses! (It won’t meaningfully affect their ability to buy other companies; they already have $4 billion in cash on hand, and I seriously doubt they have any multibillion dollar acquisitions in mind.)

I guess if you measure innovation by keeping financial score, this seems exciting, but if you measure by, you know, actual innovation, this is a total nonevent.

However. All the IPO furore has introduced one interesting data point: Mark Zuckerberg’s S-1 letter, which includes the unexpectedly striking–daring, even–paragraphs

We hope to change how people relate to their governments and social institutions.

We believe building tools to help people share can bring a more honest and transparent dialogue around government that could lead to more direct empowerment of people, more accountability for officials and better solutions to some of the biggest problems of our time.

By giving people the power to share, we are starting to see people make their voices heard on a different scale from what has historically been possible. These voices will increase in number and volume. They cannot be ignored. Over time, we expect governments will become more responsive to issues and concerns raised directly by all their people rather than through intermediaries controlled by a select few.

Whoa.

Now, I’m on record as a pretty harsh critic of Facebook. Not because I think they’re evil, but because everything they do has always seemed mediocre, homogenizing, and painfully, painfully dull. (With the sole exception of Timeline, which is interesting in that it introduces long-term context to a previously transient medium, but not exactly world-changing.) To quote, er, myself:

Facebook has become to the social web what Microsoft is to the desktop: mindbogglingly gargantuan, relentlessly mediocre, and almost inescapable.

There’s nothing mediocre about what Zuckerberg wrote above. It’s downright inspirational. He’s talking about his intent to actually change the way the whole world works, using Facebook as a lever.

But how, exactly? I mean, full marks for bold words, but there’s still a vast uncrossed chasm between idea and execution, and the road to hell remains paved with good intentions.

His letter also includes a bunch of boilerplate crap about creating a “more open culture” through the magic of “people sharing more”, but come on. First, there’s a massive wall of diminishing returns there: as people share more, the value and importance of what we share decreases. First we get used to sharing online at all; then we start sharing what’s important to us; then we wind up dumping our entire Spotify playlist on our friends.

Second, that sits more than a little uncomfortably with the fact that the only people to date who actually have changed the world in an important way using Facebook as a lever, the revolutionaries of the Arab Spring, were people who had to keep their identities and locations secret; had they followed Facebook’s “share more!” ethos, they would have failed and been tortured to death. So that’s awkward.

No, if Zuckerberg really wants to change the way the world works, he’s going to have to introduce something entirely new. Like what? you inquire. Funny you should ask: I happen to have a couple of ideas. They’re wild speculation, of course — but I think they at least give an idea of the order of magnitude of innovation that’s required here.

1. Online Parliaments

This is the most obvious, and the best fit. Right now Facebook is mostly about social groups, ie people you know. But what if they expanded their remit to organizations? And I mean any scale of organization, ranging from your local arts centre to, say, the Republican Party. Sure, they can and do already have Facebook Pages, but what if their members could use Facebook to hold binding votes for their representatives? Conversely, what if those organizations could raise money from their members directly via Facebook (in exchange for a 5% fee, of course) — and then the Facebook-voted representatives could decide what to do with those funds?

That would introduce a Facebook aspect like a mega-Kickstarter, which would be significant in and of itself…

…but more importantly, it would introduce Facebook into the political sphere. Aside from the money machine it would become for every political party, an elected representative of, say, twenty million verified Facebook users — “Ladies and gentlemen, the junior senator from Reddit!” — would be a major political figure, regardless of their pedigree or location, if only for the size of their pulpit.

It could even be a step towards direct online democracy, a la John Brunner’s prophetic The Shockwave Rider. There would obviously be technical challenges: verifying the electoral registers, a reliable and secure voting system, some protections against fraud, etc. But they seem surmountable.

2. Eyes On The Sky

This one’s a little crazier: what if Facebook built a mechanism for protest?

I don’t mean the Occupy movement. I mean a means for people to indicate that authority is being abused or corrupted. That petty thugs prevent people from taking pictures from a public walkway, even though they have every right to do so. When innocent people are victimized by police brutality. When bureaucrats in developing nations have to be bribed to do their jobs.

Right now there’s usually no recourse for abuse of authority, except for

  • taking your complaint to the authority in question, which promises it will investigate itself and then stacks the deck against you
  • going to the media, which is a lottery at the best of times.

What if Facebook provided such a recourse? A universal complaints department, if you will, one that uses their extraordinary reach as both searchlight and spotlight. That’s not as awkward a fit as it first sounds. After all, the fight against fraud and corruption is one of transparency — indeed, the world’s primary anti-corruption organization is called Transparency International — and I think we can all agree Facebook is all about transparency. If you go back and read Zuckerberg’s words, you’ll find they actually fit this notion pretty well.

What else might Facebook do to truly change the way the world works? Heck, I don’t have even half of the answers. Chime in with your own suggestions in the comments. But what’s clear to me, at least, is that if Mark Zuckerberg actually wants to put his money where his mouth his, he needs to do something new. “More of the same” won’t even come close to cutting it.