When Facebook’s long-awaited IPO announcement finally came last week, it was accompanied by an open letter to potential investors from Mark Zuckerberg, its enigmatic 27-year-old CEO.
This is how he chose to open the account of his company in the IPO document:
"At Facebook, we're inspired by technologies that have revolutionized how people spread and consume information. We often talk about inventions like the printing press and the television--by simply making communication more efficient, they led to a complete transformation of many important parts of society. They gave more people a voice. They encouraged progress. They changed the way society was organized."
From the outset Zuckerberg wants potential investors to know that Facebook isn't just any company; it's a company on a crusade.
[ Are you ready for Timeline? See Facebook Timeline: 5 Facts You Need To Know. ]
Facebook understands that all the things that provide a sense of purpose and meaning in our lives are deeply intertwined with our socialness. We evolved to function in social groups, and we're all hardwired into the cultural networks that surround us. (Elsewhere, The BrainYard has reported on how that culture applies to Facebook internal processes such as employee recognition and business intelligence).
What we call culture is the set of methods that have arisen in a particular group to help its members pursue their collaborative instincts. Culture is also a knowledge repository; we navigate the world not by knowing everything, but by engaging with the network of knowledge and experience embedded in our culture, as David Brooks explains in his book The Social Animal:
We use intelligence to structure our environment so that we can succeed with less intelligence... it is the human brain plus these chunks of external scaffolding that finally constitutes the smart, rational inference engine we call mind.
Mark Zuckerberg knows that lines of communication are crucial in culture. Taking them away would be like taking synapses away from the brain, leaving a mass of useless neurons behind. Ultimately it's the pattern of connections between the countless data points that makes a culture smart, and if you want to make it smarter, it's not about adding more knowledge; it's about increasing the bandwidth. This is at the core of Zuckerberg's mission.
He knows that culture is always willing to reinvent itself and accommodate new technologies that enhance the connections across the cultural network; it happened with the printing press, the discovery of electricity, the telephone, and commercial airlines. What's more, the pace and scope of change on each occasion was faster and broader than the last, because it was operating through ever-improving cultural connections.
Today, the rate of change is breathtakingly swift and happens on a truly global scale. Internet culture has already embraced email, forums, chat rooms, instant messaging, blogging, and now social networking. Zuckerberg knows Facebook needs to stay ahead of the curve, which is why he has installed mottos such as, "Move fast and break things," and, "The riskiest thing is to take no risks" at Facebook's Palo Alto headquarters.
Facebook's filing confirms three things:
- First, with 845 million users, $3.7 billion revenue in 2011 (a 88% increase from 2010), and $1 billion in profits, Facebook is a massively successful, hugely profitable, growing company.
- Second, with Zuckerberg personally owning a 28% stake and holding 57% of the voting stock, it will very much remain under his express command.
- Third and perhaps most importantly, it is a company that is not content with merely making money, it is a company that wants to change the culture and politics of the world, as Zuckerberg himself openly expresses in his letter:
"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."
If you do decide to invest in Facebook, remember that you're investing in more than just a company. You're investing in a man on a mission to rewire society itself.
Robert Hewson (@robhewson) is researching a book on social media, due for release in the fourth quarter of 2012.
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