Zuckerberg: Tech's last idealist?

Facebook's CEO wants to build a 21st century tech company that will change the world. Sounds nice on paper.

Will Mark Zuckerberg succeed where Larry Page and Sergey Brin couldn't? Probably not, but it's going to be fun watching as he tries to keep history at arm's length.

For many, the face of the social-networking revolution, Zuckerberg, is elevating the discussion surrounding Facebook's coming IPO in a way that only invites admiration. And reminding us of the Google guys' 2004 pledge not to be evil, Zuckerberg is promising to break the corporate mold.

Yes, Facebook will be worth billions of dollars, but this isn't about the money. In a much-commented upon letter , Zuckerberg wrote that Facebook came into being with an eye on what he said was a social mission--one in which it would help "make the world more open and connected."

"Most great people care primarily about building and being a part of great things, but they also want to make money. Through the process of building a team--and also building a developer community, advertising market, and investor base--I've developed a deep appreciation for how building a strong company with a strong economic engine and strong growth can be the best way to align many people to solve important problems. Simply put: we don't build services to make money; we make money to build better services."

Wooly eyed idealism? In fact, just the opposite. Frankly, there is no shortage of quick-rich artists out there, short-timers whose No. 1 motivation is to cash out as soon as possible. Zuckerberg, who has turned down all offers to sell the company, apparently doesn't itch to trade it away to set up shop on a beach in the Bahamas. And with his roughly 57 percent voting control of the company's shares, the kind of Facebook he wants is the sort of Facebook that he'll get. In the beginning, at least. Says Zuck:

"We believe that a more open world is a better world because people with more information can make better decisions and have a greater impact. That goes for running our company as well. We work hard to make sure everyone at Facebook has access to as much information as possible about every part of the company so they can make the best decisions and have the greatest impact. Once again, Facebook exists to make the world more open and connected, and not just to build a company. We expect everyone at Facebook to focus every day on how to build real value for the world in everything they do."

It's a rhetorical flourish that stirs memories of the Google co-founders' marching orders when Page and Brin issued their famous "don't be evil" proclamation. At the time, they rightly noted that investors would "be better served--as shareholders and in all other ways--by a company that does good things for the world, even if we forgo some short-term gains." Their stated aspiration was to "make Google an institution that makes the world a better place," adding that Google would "always be mindful of our responsibilities to our shareholders, employees, customers, and business partners."

None of this is meant to indict Google's co-founders as hypocrites, but neither Page or Brin is especially vocal about the company's ethical superiority to rivals these days. For good reason. It turns out that Google is a lot more like the companies it competes against than it lets on. Big companies simply have big appetites, and there is added pressure when they're public.

Right now, Zuckerberg is the hot story, and his high-minded articulation of Facebook's transformative mission deserves respect. But why should we believe that Facebook will remain unique? Zuckerberg obviously has many talents, but can he change human nature?

As companies grow, new blood changes corporate culture. Zuckerberg may define Facebook, but the newcomers who join the company 5 or 10 years from today will not be driven to build great services for the the sake of posterity as they will be to make a pile of money. Facebook's CEO made his big score, and they're going to want the same.

This doesn't mean that Facebook is doomed to become evil--even if it falls short of the lofty ideals its CEO promotes. However, it will be a different company than the one Zuckerberg has promised amid all the hype and hyperbole surrounding one of the most storied IPOs in tech history.

 

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