I had to sit down and take a deep breath when I realized that I was feeling sorry for Mark Zuckerberg. On the surface he's sitting in the catbird seat. I mean the kid has more money than he'll ever be able to spend. He'll never have to worry about paying for health care. He doesn't care what his tax rate is, because it will never affect his lifestyle. He'll be first in line for the newest Tesla. He can fly to Florence for the weekend whenever he wants. Why feel sorry for him?
I guess I feel sorry for him because they stole his company.
When Facebook launched in February of 2004 it announced that its mission was simple: to give people the power to share and make the world more open and connected.
Between February of 2004 and May of 2012 Facebook remade much of the world in pursuit of that mission. 900 million people rambling online, sharing thoughts, posting pictures — OK mainly cats and babies — but still sharing something. A new social norm evolves, a reconstruction of the notion of "friendship." Heady stuff for a kid still shy of 30.
And then social went public. Facebook pulled up a chair to the adults' table, and the stock market pulled the chair out from under Zuckerberg. Picture Charlie Brown and Lucy jerking the football away: Splat!
How does a company go from being the darling of the world one day to being a punchline the next? It's really not all that hard to understand: You change the rules — you evaluate the company using criteria that have nothing to do with Facebook's original mission statement. Facebook's new mission statement, whether it wants it or not, is to generate revenue for its shareholders by selling advertising to Facebook users on cellphones and tablet computers. In short, Facebook's new mission is to make money.
I understand that it is sophisticated in these "working out of recession" days to assert that the bottom line is the bottom line. We grow quickly blind to the notion that the whole "greed is good" mentality of bankers and hedge-funders is what got us into trouble in the first place. And I suppose that it would be naive to take exception to that "belief in the bottom line" assertion, to posit instead that product, not simply profit, could be the driving force behind a business endeavor. That someone might actually be motivated by a desire to build a better mousetrap. Instead we assume that one should start a company designed to build mousetraps, but keep a firm eye on the exit strategy of selling the company to one of the "le"s — Apple or Google. Then you take your megabucks and buy an island. The island turns out to have a severe mouse problem. "Damn," you think, "somebody ought to ... "
The point is that as businesses converge around the Internet, they seem to morph into the same business — the advertising business. Even stranger is the fact that many of the ads that are pushed onto our cell phones and tablets are ads for businesses that are themselves businesses in the business of pushing more ads, and so on and so on. Pretty soon we find ourselves trapped in a cybercycle, haunted by the realization that there is no "there" there — just another link to another ad. Whoa. Digital vertigo.
And that's why I feel sorry for Zuckerberg. I mean the guy just wanted to meet girls. So he built this website. He met girls. Got married. Got rich. But now the bankers and the beancounters control the site. Oh, not up front. Mark is still the man. But unless the stock turns around, the guy in the hoodie will eventually bow to the dudes in suits.