Noah J Nelson on Friday, Feb. 3rd
The build up to the most anticipated tech initial public offering (IPO) since Google hit the market has officially begun after years of speculation and hype. On Wedensday, Facebook filed with the Securities and Exchange Commission, including in their documents a lengthy letter to potential investors from founder Mark Zuckerberg that reads in places more like a hacker manifesto from a mildly Disneyfied William Gibson novel than it does from a cut-throat businessman:
We have already helped more than 800 million people map out more than 100 billion connections so far, and our goal is to help this rewiring accelerate.
By giving people the power to share, we are starting to see people make their voices heard on a different scale from what has historically been possible. These voices will increase in number and volume. They cannot be ignored. Over time, we expect governments will become more responsive to issues and concerns raised directly by all their people rather than through intermediaries controlled by a select few.
Through this process, we believe that leaders will emerge across all countries who are pro-internet and fight for the rights of their people, including the right to share what they want and the right to access all information that people want to share with them.
The heart of the letter essentially boils down to this: Facebook still sees itself as a force for change, not as a profit machine.
Simply put: we don’t build services to make money; we make money to build better services.
Beyond that, Zuckerberg and Co. appear to believe that this is the way of the future; that we are in a kind of new dawn for the way that businesses should behave.
These days I think more and more people want to use services from companies that believe in something beyond simply maximizing profits.
In the hours before Facebook’s IPO was confirmed, media theorist Douglas Rushkoff was published on CNN.com laying out a heraldic warning that what we are about to see will not be the adoption by the marketplace of Facebook’s “Hacker Way”, but the age old ritual of the upstart business coming to bend the knee before its true lord and master.
Simply becoming a multi-billion-dollar company changes the essence of its goals, activities, and purpose. Its bloodstream becomes filled with cash, and cash has its own agenda. For just like print, TV, or the Internet, money is a medium, too. It has biases, or tendencies, programmed right into it. The kind of money we happen to use — bank-issued central currency — is biased toward lending. That’s why we call our system “capitalism.” It’s about the capital: Our money is designed to favor those who lend it to others who actually use it to build companies or create value.
Rushkoff has every reason to be cynical. In the 1990s he was one of the great evangelsists of the Internet era. Like Zuckerberg appears to be now, he believed that the reformation of society by way of computer networks was inevitable. He would, presumably gleefully, take speakers fees from Madison Ave. advertisers and other big businesses to essentially tell them that they were doomed to be swept away by the rising tide of the digital sea.
Of course, all the while the executives he was speaking to were learning and adapting, and the wild west of the internet was corralled into portals like Yahoo! and ultimately into social networks — like Facebook. Rushkoff learned his lesson and began to explore the tools of social control that media companies rely on in order to stay profitable. This led to his understanding of the role that money plays in society, a topic he delves into in the book Life, Inc.
It’s hard to think of Facebook as a champion of a more open society if you grew up alongside the World Wide Web. The service feels more like a smarter version of the old AOL then it does the evolutionary next step of human communication. Yet it took something as user-friendly as AOL to get big numbers of Americans online and connecting, and Facebook seems to be doing the same thing for a large chunk of the planet’s population.
In a time when we are reexamining the role that corporations and massive concentrations of wealth play in our society (and I’m talking on a global level, not just here in the States) maybe there is a small chance that Zuckerberg’s company can be the first to teach Wall St. new tricks.
Or the last to fall under the spell of its sorcerous ways.