So Facebook is about to do the expected. It filed for an IPO yesterday and the clock is now ticking on what will be one of the largest offerings in history. I don’t know how things will compare but Ford’s IPO in the 1950’s and UPS’s offering a few years ago might be bigger pound for pound, but this one will certainly make history.
The back-stories on the IPO have particular appeal, for example, many people early on in the company’s evolution took stock in lieu of cash for products and services rendered. There’s a story in the New York Times about several of these people like David Choe a hip artist who applied some graffiti to the company’s first offices and took stock. Choe’s art is selling well enough today but in a few days his tiny sliver of the company might be worth as much as $200 million.
Note to self: Issuing stock might be the next big idea to help individuals out of the non-recovery (can’t call it an official recession anymore). Or would this be seen as a form of counterfeiting?
Choe is not alone, there is a menagerie of others like secretaries, a masseuse and the company chef who will cash in as well as old Harvard buddies Tyler and Cameron Winklevoss whom you may recall from the movie. Zuckerberg’s dad got two million shares “in satisfaction of funds provided for our initial working capital.” What a good son.
There is a great outpouring of analysis about Facebook’s place in the world as it relates to social business. One MIT professor, Catherine Tucker, is making the rounds with her analysis and there are many others. But like the back-story on who is about to become wealthier than they’ve ever imagined, there is an arguably more important story on Facebook as a civic force.
We saw abundant examples of Facebook’s reach in the last year. From the Arab Spring, to Occupy Wall Street to last week’s SOPA/PIPA fiasco, Facebook—and Twitter, LinkedIn and others—have shown that it is both possible to reawaken the sense of community in our civilization and leverage social networking for business.
I prefer “the commons” over simple “community”. The commons is a wonderful concept from antiquity that simply means what we as a people have together for mutual benefit. The commons might be physical like the common area where villagers grazed cattle. Everyone used a little bit of the commons and was careful not to over use for good reasons. The commons was thought of as a renewable resource that will benefit future generations as long as we use it in a sustainable way. So while there were no formal rules about the use of the commons the community kept a rough ledger.
In more modern times the overhead bins on commercial aircraft were once considered a commons though they have been co-opted by the airlines. The broadcast spectrum is still considered a commons and companies compete for parts of it—at auction—for everything form commercial radio and TV to the airwaves used by wireless devices and more is coming. When the FCC grants a license to a broadcaster there is still language in the license about providing for the common good.
Facebook and its kin have done something truly wonderful for the commons. In an era documented by books like “Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community,” a 2001 title that documented the decay of the community on the eve of the social transformation when the civic impulse had shriveled considerably. Social networking showed it was possible to take much of the overhead out of maintaining personal relationships. It showed that it is realistic even in an over committed life to maintain relationships all over the planet with whomever we want for whatever purpose we want.
The results have been astounding. Repressive regimes and uncaring vendors alike have discovered that while they might be able to ignore and bully individuals they are powerless against the community. The new commons made that possible and it serves to add renewed meaning to another old word the “commonwealth,” the thing we have together that helps us live our lives. The old commons is part of our common wealth.
So while the financial wizards celebrate the massive wad of cash about to be crystallized in the IPO, I think the real winners will be the people who never bought the stock, painted a wall or grilled a cheeseburger at o’dark thirty for Mr. Zuckerberg for that matter. Social networking is pulling humanity through a keyhole into a future where it will need these tools to preserve some of the things that make us human and that make civilization possible.