Facebook finds out who's in charge

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Late this week, Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg announced that the site is revamping its governance, and called upon its users for help. He issued drafts of two documents: a list of "Facebook Principles" and a "Statement of Rights and Responsibilities," opening them to public debate. Until March 29, users will be able to comment upon the documents, and Zuckerberg has promised that any subsequent changes will be put to a vote.

On the one hand, Zuckerberg's announcement seems to be a bit of showcraft. He has promised that, if 30% of registered users vote for changes to the documents, he will edit them. In all honesty, the likelihood of building a coalition of that many online users seems slim.

Still, while the likelihood of changing the documents is thin, Zuckerberg's willingness to do so speaks volumes. Following last week's firestorm over ownership of content, Facebook seems to have gained a clear, if painful, understanding of the limits of its market position. Rather than presiding over a content empire, Zuckerberg runs an online social space that, for many, is little more than the internet's version of the old fashioned white pages. As the administrator of those pages, Zuckerberg is in an outstanding position to sell advertising; trying to extend his reach beyond that could be fatal.

Some argue that Facebook is on the cutting edge of internet democracy. This may be true; if so, the reason lies in the site's precarious position. Facebook, after all, replaced My Space as the default online social networking site. The fact that it was able to do so illustrates that, in the end, online social networking spaces are not that hard to replicate. The constant proliferation of user-generated programs, while helpful for maintaining the site's success, could easily be copied on other sites, as could the personal content of users.

EBay, for all its missteps, survives because it controls user feedback. This merchant-rating system, which cannot be moved and would be difficult to copy, inspires users to put up with ever-increasing levels of greed and incompetence.

In the absence of such a powerful tool, Facebook needs to maintain user loyalty. For the internet, which has long supported the twin ideals of free information and democratic decisions, there is no better way to pander to one's users than by protecting those dearly-held concepts. As long as Zuckerberg remembers that he is an administrator, not really an owner, Facebook should have a long, bright future.

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