Facebook wants to rewire the way the world works

Written on:February 1, 2012
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There’s a lot to take in when it comes to the much-anticipated Facebook IPO filing — the company’s massive user base of 845 million (more than half of whom log on at least once a day), the $ 1 billion in net income it made last year, the almost $ 4 billion in revenue, and so on. And it’s pretty obvious that co-founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg wants to extend his social network beyond that, to reach as many human beings on the planet as possible. But in the letter to shareholders that is included in the filing, Zuckerberg makes it clear that his vision goes beyond even that: he wants to fundamentally rewire the way the world works — from interpersonal interactions to commerce and even government.

In the note, which founders and CEOs typically include in their securities filings as a way of introducing themselves and their vision to investors (Google’s introduced the phrase it is probably best known for — “Don’t be evil”) Zuckerberg says that he believes the social connections Facebook allows users to create are more than just a way for friends to stay in touch. He says they can help to change the world:

By helping people form these connections, we hope to rewire the way people spread and consume information. We think the world’s information infrastructure should resemble the social graph — a network built from the bottom up or peer-to-peer, rather than the monolithic, top-down structure that has existed to date.

We also believe that giving people control over what they share is a fundamental principle of this rewiring. We have already helped more than 800 million people map out more than 100 billion connections so far, and our goal is to help this rewiring accelerate.

Think about that for a moment. It’s fairly common for mission statements in IPO filings to be grandiose, but even so Zuckerberg’s vision is fairly massive: he’s saying he believes that social connections will rewire the entire structure of society — that it will become more like a network graph, multiple connections between points, instead of a top-down hierarchy. He says that a more open and connected world will “help create a stronger economy with more authentic businesses that build better products and services” because as people share their opinions, it makes it easier to “improve the quality and efficiency of their lives.”

A more networked world — and one company at the center

Not only that, but Zuckerberg says that social tools — experienced through Facebook, obviously — can “bring a more honest and transparent dialogue around government” that could help empower people and make officials more accountable:

By giving people the power to share, 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.

This view of a networked world isn’t something the Facebook CEO came up with all by himself. Academics and social theorists such as Yochai Benkler — author of the book “The Wealth of Networks” — and others have been discussing the impact of network theory for some time, and the value of what sociologist Mark Granovetter called “weak ties” between individuals (as opposed to the strong ties of religion, culture, etc.). And we’ve already seen how powerful Facebook connections can be during events like the “Arab Spring” in Egypt.

But Zuckerberg isn’t just another social-networking theorist, he’s the CEO of a company that touches close to a billion people in one way or another, with a market value in the $ 100-billion range. And he doesn’t just want to enable these changes in society — on a fairly fundamental level, he wants to control them. Whether (and for how long) Facebook can manage to walk the line between enabling and controlling social change remains to be seen.

Post and thumbnail photos courtesy of Richard Engel, NBC

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