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Lessons learned from Social Media governance

In the last six months, two of the most popular social networking platforms -Facebook and Twitter – announced policy changes, only to be forced to do an about-face less than 24 hours later due to an overwhelming backlash from users unhappy with the “behind closed doors” style of policy changes.

In February, Facebook attempted to change its terms of service overnight without broadly notifying users.   A blog post on The Consumerist drew attention to the changes and urged account users to express their disappointment in the lack of disclosure and transparency demonstrated by the social network in crafting and ultimately implementing these major privacy changes.   User frustration spread in the form of Twitter hashtags like #TOS, blog posts, and, ironically, Facebook groups where users voiced their opinion and held the company accountable.   Within 72 hours of this backlash, Facebook had made a statement saying they would revert to the old terms of service and announced they would solicit public comments and third party opinions in crafting a new Terms of Service.   They even allowed users to vote on which set of policies would be enacted; those crafted by Facebook alone or those that included third-party opinion.

Twitter dealt with a similar situation yesterday when a “tweak” to its @replyname policy was made which many advanced users argued drastically limited their ability to network and meet new people with shared interests.   Immediately, users began a barrage of “tweets” voicing objections by using the hashtag #fixreplies until Twitter management reversed itself and announced it would look into developing a better solution to the problem, and that while technical issues prevent the Twitter platform from going back to the old system of @replyname, they could restore some of the old functionalities that users had requested.

The key lesson learned from these situations is that social network users are willing to organize and hold their choice of platform accountable when transparency is lost in policy changes. Users have invested a great deal of time in these websites, and feel that they have a stake in the future of the service. The same lesson can be adapted to advocate to our government as well. The public has invested a lot of time, money and concern into our government, and we have a stake in the policies that they craft, too. We’ve written before about how bills are rushed through Congress and onto the President’s desk, and about how detrimental that is to the public debate and participation. We must hold our government accountable when policies are “fast-tracked” through to implementation without open debate and notice, particularly in a time when the Internet’s inherent ability to foster greater openness and citizen participation are becoming fully realized.

Citizens should continue to push for a more open government that actively solicits public opinions and comments when regulations that will impact their lives are up for debate.   President Obama’s day one memorandum asking government to embrace transparency, collaboration, and citizen participation, and the soon to be released Open Government Directive, have the promise of bringing unprecedented levels of openness and transparency to the policy making process. Lawmakers would do well to heed the recent user revolts on Facebook and Twitter and realize that a newly empowered citizenry is willing and able to coalesce around an issue online and expect results.