In some ways, it might seem absurd to call Facebook a country and Mr Zuckerberg its President. It has no land to defend; no police to enforce law and order and compared with citizenship of a country, membership is easy to acquire and renounce. Nor do Facebook’s boss and his executives depend directly on the assent of an “electorate” that can unseat them. Technically, the only people they report to are the shareholders. But many web-watchers do detect country-like features in Facebook. It is a device that allows people to get together and control their own destiny, much like a nation-state..
So if newspapers and tatty paperbacks can create new social and political units, for which people toil and die, perhaps the latest forms of communication can do likewise. To many, that forecast still smacks of cyber-fantasy. But the rise of Facebook at least gives pause for thought. If it were a physical nation, it would now be the third most populous on earth. Mr Zuckerberg is confident there will be a billion users in a few years. Facebook is unprecedented not only in its scale but also in its ability to blur boundaries between the real and virtual worlds. A few years ago, online communities evoked fantasy games played by small, geeky groups. But as technology made possible large virtual arenas like Second Life or World of Warcraft, an online game with millions of players, so the overlap between cyberspace and real human existence began to grow.
From the users’ viewpoint, Facebook can feel a bit like a liberal polity: a space in which people air opinions, rally support and right wrongs. What about the view from the top? Is Facebook a place that needs governing, just as a country does?
Facebook has certainly tried to guide the development of its online economy, almost in the way that governments seek to influence economic activity in the real world, through fiscal and monetary policy. Earlier this year the firm said it wanted applications running on its platform to accept its virtual currency, known as Facebook Credits. It argued that this was in the interests of Facebook users, who would no longer have to use different online currencies for different applications. But this infuriated some developers, who resent the fact that Facebook takes a 30% cut on every transaction involving credits.
Like any ruling elite that knows it relies on the consent from the ruled, Facebook seeks advice from its members on questions of governance. It allows users to vote on proposed changes to its terms of service, and it holds online forums to solicit views on future policies. And like any well-intentioned politico, Facebook makes blunders: its members were infuriated earlier this year by changes to its policy that made public some previously private information. If Mr Zuckerberg achieves his goal of creating the world’s favourite “social utility”, he may need to give users a more formal say—a bit like a constitution.
Experience shows that networks which neglect governance pay a price. Take MySpace, which was once much bigger than Facebook: its growth stalled a couple of years ago when its managers let the site become too disorderly. There is a thin line, it seems, between the freedom that spurs creativity and a free-for-all.
For now at least, real governments still have some aces; they can simply pull the plug on the service. Facebook is blocked in China. Perhaps Facebook is less a nation than a giant transnational movement—comparable to the Red Cross or the Catholic church—which has an overarching aim and can speak to governments on something like equal terms.
As Facebook’s masters present it, their mission is just to make the world more open and connected—and bring closer the “global village”. Facebook’s success raises a lot of issues, one of them is how much impact virtual economies and currencies will have on real world ones. The Chinese government has repeatedly curbed virtual currencies. Last year it banned their use to buy real-world goods and services, in part because of concerns about the impact on the yuan.
Would there be another social network site that could create a bigger impact on the virtual social network activity and able to swing the 500million users to leave away Facebook ? It would be something that needs to be very fresh with ideas and allow future users to behave in a different manner they wish to choose to show others on the virtual world.