December 11, 2012

Like most things on Facebook, this looks more fun than it is, I bet. (Joel Saget/Getty Images)

People often contemplate what Facebook would look like if it were a country. It’s more than a billion strong, is peopled by users from all over the world, with only Mark Zuckerberg’s friendship in common. What binds a place like that together?

I think I know the answer.

Facebook Nation is the group of people who say they will move to Canada after the election but never do. We complain and complain and complain, but we never leave. We are the people who can’t wait to vote, then expect the polls to come to our house and get us out of bed. 

Facebook privacy has long been a cherished oxymoron. Users’ vociferous complaints about it are only matched by their total unwillingness to take any kind of action whatsoever. Quit Facebook? But where would I go to complain to my friends about what Facebook has just done to its privacy settings? Twitter?

But now, with Monday’s vote on whether users retained the right to demand a vote on policy changes, it’s official.

Our apathy has won out.

You are happy to complain, Facebook Nation. You are happy to post that viral announcement about privacy to your wall. You are happy to Like someone’s status that Facebook Policy Changes Are Unfair And Frankly Wrong.

But you can’t even be brought to click a simple button to vote on the issue! You’ve taken more complicated steps to access pornography! But this button? Nope. Too far.

(Don’t worry, neither could I.)

Facebook has always been fertile ground for causes where complaining is the only action required. That is Facebook’s bailiwick. We will Like the heck out of your petition. We will rail about your injustice. Just don’t expect us to show up in person or make any commitment more concrete than clicking your Paypal — never mind that brief phase, during Occupy, when we experimented with doing just that.

And thanks to Monday’s resounding vote of total indifference, where once 7,000 “substantive” comments were sufficient to force a vote on a policy change, now Facebook can move ahead without hindrance. The last remnants of the old token democracy have been swept away.

This is entirely consistent with Facebook’s history. We are willing to trade so much in order to be seen by others — even the freedom not to be watched.

Never mind that viral announcement you posted to your wall and thought was sufficient. Never mind the more than 589,000 people who made the tough click and voted to preserve users’ right to vote on changes to privacy settings. In Facebook terms, that’s chump change. No vote on Facebook that draws less than 30 percent of users is binding. And given that this would have required 300 million people to vote on a Facebook privacy change, you can see what the odds of a victory for privacy were likely to be. The only thing you can ever get 300 million people to do at the same time is complain.

Alexandra Petri writes the ComPost blog, offering a lighter take on the news and opinions of the day.