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Do You Own Facebook? Or Does Facebook Own You?

Why has the number of MySpace visitors remained essentially flat in the past year? Why do social networks fail? Maybe it’s claustrophobic to know this much about other people. Maybe we like the way the way we’ve been able to live over the past 50 years, the freedom to move where we want, date who we like, and insert ourselves into any number of social cliques, before we cast aside those who bore us and never look back. Independence is a gift, even if it’s lonely sometimes, and solving childhood mysteries may make people happier, but it doesn’t necessarily turn them into the people they dream of being. So we keep perpetuating the cycle of birthing and abandoning new online communities, drawing close and then pulling away, on a perpetual search for the perfect balance of unity and autonomy on the web.

I don’t want to leave Facebook—reloading personal photos and making new friends on another site feels very junior high; it would be a drag. But it’s easy to imagine a circumstance—the wrong ads, too much information about too many people, some invisible level where being commodified starts to drive me nuts—when I might stop showing up, living my life in the real world, checking the site every couple of months. Monetize that … bitch.

Facebook may well turn out to be some sort of democracy, or at least, as Cox says, a “democracy in spirit.” “I think there’s a little-d democratic analogy here, to the U.S. government for instance,” says Chris Kelly. “You don’t get to vote on every budget item: You get to vote for your representatives, and you can rise up in constitutional convention, if you want to organize one of them, but on a foundational level, there’s a consent to be governed.” This might be as much as we can expect on the web. If it is, then our fates are already tied together, because we can either rise up in large numbers, or remain silent—rule-followers, faceless Facebook members.

It’s possible that even Harper will go back being nobody, to doing as he’s told. After all, it’s a big victory, getting an important company to change its Terms of Service, even if it didn’t take all of his suggestions. He’s a busy guy, and apolitical; he didn’t vote in the presidential election, but says that if he had, he would have chosen Barack Obama or Alan Keyes. Last week, Facebook called him again to ask him if he would look over a summary of user feedback before they publish the new Terms of Service on April 10, and told him that it was consulting an independent auditor for the upcoming vote.“I think they wanted some kind of comment like, ‘This totally restores my faith in Facebook,’ ” he says. “I was like, ‘Okay, I’m happy you’re doing this, but I’m not going to be your mouthpiece.’ ” Harper may not fully understand what he’s fighting, but he still wants to fight. He’s not ready to blend in the crowd. Now, he’s even thinking about applying to law school. “I like that my claim to fame is something that helps people, that I’m not Omarosa from The Apprentice,” he says, his brown eyes lighting up. “I’d like to be a person who makes decisions. That would be cool.”