Facebook Timeline and the election of Vladimir Putin: what they share in common

The answer is that they both mark an end to a period of managed democracy.

Putin first.  We may not especially like Vladimir Putin’s approach to democracy – managed democracy as he puts it.  However, the era of managed democracy has none-the-less brought significant benefits.  Almost everyone in Russia is materially better-off, a middle class has emerged, free-market corporate anarchy has been brought under control and the power of the oligarchs has been dissipated.  Things have got so much better in fact that this emergent middle class has stopped worrying about putting food on the table and can now start to worry about putting democracy on the table.

It is assumed that Putin is wise to this.  He has ‘got the message’ via the recent protests and knows that having secured 6 more years, it is now in everyone’s interests to now manage a process towards more genuine democracy (rather than seeking to manage democracy itself).  And is also assumed that he is cool with this because, literally or figuratively speaking, he has made his pile.  We could of course be wrong – in which case we will still see the end of managed democracy, but with a return to authoritarianism.

Which brings us very neatly to Facebook.  The Facebook world to this point has been a form of managed democracy.  While Facebook is democratic in that it is open to anyone to participate within it, the rules are managed from HQ, to an increasing extent in a manner designed explicitly to advance the interests of the owners.  But we, the users, have been content with this, because we have all benefited from being introduced to the new form of behaviour that Facebook represents.  We have also been kept content because the internal operations of Facebook have not been transparent in much the same way that Putin has maintained a veil of opacity around his own activities.

But here is the change that signals an end to that era.  Facebook Timeline is an initiative that has been designed explicitly to benefit the interests of the current and future owners of Facebook rather than an initiative informed by the way users wish to use the platform.  Users are being forced (for we can’t opt-out of Timeline) to change their behaviour in order to generate much greater volumes of data about their lives.  The benefit to them of doing this is debatable.  The value of them doing this, for Facebook, is considerable.  Facebook is seeking to shape and control the will of the people in order to support a ruling elite.  It is becoming authoritarian.

Much has been made of the fact that, with 800 million users, if Facebook were a country it would be the third largest in the world.  Some truths lie in this analogy, beyond simple indicators of scale.  Facebook users are not simply consumers or an audience, they are much better understood as citizens of Facebook.  And if you put the interests of a controlling elite ahead of the interests of your citizens without delivering to your citizens a significant compensating benefit, you will ultimately end up in trouble.  Putin, we believe, has learned this lesson.  Has Facebook?


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