Will Facebook live up to the IPO expectations?
Maybe it’s just my cynical nature, overlaid with generous helpings of schadenfreude, but the current overwhelming hype concerning Facebook’s billion, trillion, gazillion dollar IPO is starting to smell a bit like “boo.com” to me… Anyone remember those darlings of the dot com implosion era?
Started by a Swedish ex-model and a professor of Norse literature to sell high fashion gear over the Internet, they burned through $135 million of VC money in a little under 18 months after opening offices in London, Paris, New York and wherever else Concord flew. In fact, they were referred to in the various watering holes frequented by the London adverati as “The Three C’s Company.” Champagne, Caviar and Concord. There were also strong rumors of a forth “C.” Namely the one you shove up your nose. But, moving on…
I hasten to add that by no stretch of the imagination am I suggesting Facebook will crash and burn in the same way that Boo did, I am merely suggesting that because of the inherently transient nature of social media, what’s currently cool, can very quickly become cold. Think Second Life and MySpace. When considering that $100 billion valuation, you might also want to bear in mind that everyone thought Rupert Murdoch was a genius for picking up MySpace for a mere $600 million, only to unload it after a few short years for a paltry $30 million.
Perhaps my less than rosy view of Facebook’s future is partially driven by the pretentious and somewhat lofty prognostications Chairman Zuckerberg never ceases to expound on behalf of his creation, which he has compared to the invention of the printing press and television, whilst claiming that… “Today, our society has reached another tipping point.” Or as he puts it in the IPO filing. “There is a huge need and a huge opportunity to get everyone in the world connected, to give everyone a voice and to help transform society for the future.” Imagine that, transforming society and making a few billion dollars whilst doing it! Not bad for a 27 year old college dropout, who spent the first few years of Facebook’s existence fighting off legal claims that someone else had actually invented it.
And speaking of legal claims, Facebook seems to be bombarded with continual questions of privacy, recently highlighted by the Austrian law student who decided to find out exactly how much information Facebook had on him after being signed up for three years. It turned out that by the time he got it (after threatening legal action via Europe’s much tougher privacy laws than here in the US) there were nearly 1300 pages of highly personal data, including stuff he had deleted years before. Which leads to the much discussed question of how all this data is used, and who benefits financially. Obviously, it’s a potential goldmine for Facebook who can sell all that increasingly collated, refined, sifted and mulched data to agencies and their clients in the hope that this is the social-media phlogiston that will help them to sell stuff to consumers rather than merely engage in “conversations.” You can rest assured though that amongst the beneficiaries of all this will not be the Facebook users who are actually the creators of the user-generated content from which the company is making all that money. As Nick Bilton of the NYT put it so well… “Facebook laid the foundation of the house and put in the plumbing, but we put up the walls, picked out the furniture, painted and hung photos, and invited everyone over for dinner parties.” So where’s our cut? Yeah right, dream on Nick.
Then there’s the question of numbers. In the case of anything associated with Facebook, these are always humungous, whether it is about the money Zuckerberg and his cohorts are going to make, or the actual size of the audience that’s going to help them make it. The big number from the IPO filing was 845 million active monthly users, with more than 400 million active daily users. However, this includes people who click “Like” on another Web site and do not, in fact, visit Facebook. So, they would never see any advertising residing on the Facebook page. Another caveat is that half the users are accessing Facebook on their mobile devices, which currently carry no advertising, and because of their small screens, will not be able to carry much in the future. Still, you can juggle the numbers any which way you want, at the end of the day it all comes down to the “Fickle Finger of Fate,” as they used to call it on “Rowan & Martin’s Laugh In.” In other words, as I said earlier, because of the inherently transient nature of social media, what’s currently cool can very quickly become cold. Besides which, Mark Zuckerberg explained the success of Facebook as being like watching a movie. Wouldn’t you rather watch it with friends, rather than on your own, he asked. Not if one of those friends was you, Mark.
George Parker has spent more than 40 years on Madison Avenue. He’s won Lions, CLIOs, EFFIES, and the David Ogilvy Award. His blog is adscam.typepad.com, which he describes as, “required reading for those looking for a piss & vinegar view of the world’s second oldest profession.” His latest book, “Confessions of a Mad Man,” makes the TV show “Mad Men” look like “Sesame Street.”