Foundation-rattling news this week: Facebook has filed with the SEC to set the stage for an initial public offering (IPO), meaning they’re getting ready to sell shares to the public. Once this happens, Facebook Svengali Mark Zuckerberg (“With a name like Zuckerberg, it has to be delicious!”) will probably see his $17.5 billion fortune increase by $10 billion or more in a single day. That’s almost as much as Adam Sandler gets paid to star in a shitty movie that insults the intelligence of a four-year-old.
If there’s anything Americans love to hate, it’s a snotty young billionaire. But that’s not the issue here. What really has people dry-washing their hands is what’s going to happen to their personal information once Facebook goes public. In the S-1 form filed earlier this week, Facebook revealed that it brings in about $4.50 annually for each of its 850 active users. That comes to about $3.7 billion in 2011, roughly equal to the net worth of the remaining old rich white lawyers in the Republican presidential race. Or, the GNP of about 25 nations. That’s a lot of cheddar.
How does Facebook make this money? Well, they sure ain’t raking it in from all those jagoffs playing Farmville. It comes from advertisers who pay for the information all of us Facebook users so willingly serve up on a daily basis. But this is nothing new. Facebook has been selling your information since the day you signed up. Any time you click on a website or like a page, the content is categorized and funneled to Facebook advertisers who then populate your page with stuff they think you’re into. This is why I am not surprised at all when I open my Facebook page and it’s covered with ads for industrial chicken gizzard fryers, Flip Wilson DVDs, orthopedic condoms, and some book about the Giant Beavers of South Florida.
Zuckerberg is smart, shrewd, opportunistic and ruthless in his business dealings. “Facebook was not originally created to be a company,” he wrote in an open letter. “It was built to accomplish a social mission—to make the world more open and connected.” Riiiiight, then we’ll all go for chai together after our hot yoga class and compare the ribbons on our lapels. But I don’t know why he even bothers to mention the social network’s original mission. Facebook is the biggest cash cow ever, and Zuckerberg has made enough money to fill the Grand Canyon with dinero because he was smart and lucky. He was in the right place at the right time. Had he not created Facebook, someone else would have come up with it within a month (actually, someone did. Hey there, Winkelvoss twins!).
At least he’s up front with his ambition. Wanting to parlay his massive fortune into an obscenely humongous fortune is his right, and if he didn’t take Facebook public, we’d be inundated by editorials and blogging jackanapes decrying his lack of ambition. Hell, as long as people are going to resent you, might as well make a few billion in the process. So, yeah, that naked ambition annoys a lot of people. But the real vitriol and horrified shock are leveled at the harvesting and selling of Facebook users’ personal information.
All the outrage over this “invasion of privacy” is utterly disingenuous. Zuckerberg and his investors are capitalizing on a bottomless wellspring of human nature: narcissism. Man, if we could somehow use bathroom mirror pictures of needy college girls striking awkwardly slutty poses to generate energy, Facebook could get us off the fossil fuel teat in no time. The vast majority of Facebook users are convinced that they are the most interesting people on the planet, and who are they to deprive others of their every passing thought? They think all their “friends” need constant updates on their location in meat space, and they’ll never pass up a chance to share some shopworn, Pollyanna bromide to fill you with inspiration. Spend five minutes on Facebook and you’ll see that the desire to overshare outweighs people’s need for dignity or privacy. It’s the way we’re wired; Zuckerberg knows it.
If you hate that these guys are making wheelbarrows full of Benjamins off your personal info, it’s simple. Don’t click. You can still see all the Hipstamatic prints of your sister’s dog and watch various lunatics have their very public meltdowns and fits of rage over some perceived Real Life slight. If you don’t click, your preferences stay in your head where they belong. If the naked capitalism of Facebook ads turns your stomach, start your own social network. It’s a free country.
All this moral indignation over privacy issues is bullshit. Nobody’s holding a gun to your head. But if they are, I hope you’ll post a photo.