Why don’t businesses let their customers vote on their key decisions more often?

That’s the question to bear in mind when you consider Facebook’s experiment with “democracy.” The company is today heralding the outcome of its decision to give customers a vote on its privacy policies (this is our earlier coverage of the issue.)

But the fact that a company feels it needs to hold a vote among its customers raises troubling questions.

For instance: aren’t companies already meant to have their finger on the pulse of what their customers want?

Or look at it this way: what happens to people who cast a vote and find they are on the losing side? In a political democracy they just have to live with it. In a free market they can take their business somewhere else, so polarising the audience over a single issue like this may not be such a smart move.

It all smacks of Facebook seeking legitimacy. And a company seeking legitimacy from its customers in this way has a problem.

That problem is privacy. Facebook has already slipped up a couple of times, with the Beacon advertising system and with the changes to its privacy policies it adopted earlier this year. This is partly just the result of its own clumsy mistakes, but it’s also a symptom of a deeper issue.

There is a disconnect between its users’ expectations for the protection of their own privacy, and their expectations for the quality of the service they get (more information about their friends, more relevant ads.) Mark Zuckerberg complained about that in a blog post a few weeks ago. But complaining about your customers’ lack of consistency only gets you so far.

Given all of that, holding a non-binding vote does have a couple of limited benefits (and to be clear: by setting such a high threshold of votes cast before the outcome could be mandatory, this was never anything more than an opinion poll, conducted in public.)

One benefit is that Facebook has educated some of its customers about an important topic – and it badly needs a more educated userbase when it comes to the thorny issue of privacy.

The other is that it helps the company’s PR effort.

That’s fair enough. Only, don’t confuse it with democracy.

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2018. All rights reserved.