Facebook shouldn’t pay its users. Its users should pay to own Facebook.
“Facebook was not originally created to be a company,” founder Mark Zuckerberg wrote in his letter to investors announcing the IPO of his already hugely successful and profitable company. “It was built to accomplish a social mission — to make the world more open and connected.”
Facebook has succeeded wildly, despite internal admonitions that its “journey” is only 1 percent finished. Journalists have latched onto Zuckerberg’s statement that Facebook wants to “rewire” the way the world works. In a world of thousands of self-anointed “social media experts,” only Zuckerberg can claim to have basically invented what the world thinks of as social media. He has etched himself into the timeline of human innovation.
Pity then, that Zuckerberg hasn’t turned his talents or attention toward Facebook’s financial underpinnings. After all, an IPO? How ho-hum can he get? If Mark really wants to accomplish his social mission with Facebook, he should share the company’s ownership with the people who helped him create it. Not just his Harvard contemporaries. Not just the programmers. Not even just the venture capitalists.
I’m talking about us. All of us. The users. Facebook should be a user-owned, user-managed company, run for the benefit of users. For the Facebook, by the Facebook. The company should be a cooperative.
Before I explain further, let me lay out the case in four simple points:
1. Facebook won’t necessarily get rich as a public company. LinkedIn, the grown-up social network, IPO’d last year, but is now down from its initial price after having had a big pop on its first days of trading. Zynga and Groupon, meanwhile, lost ground on their IPO prices as soon as they hit the markets. Tech journalism might work itself into a froth over a company’s earnings potential, but the broader market is still confused as to how to price these companies.
2. Distractions. Every story from now on is going to be less and less about Facebook’s incredible technology and more about how its stock is doing. Facebook’s social mission will be obscured by its profit motive.
3. Who’s being rewarded here? The whole point of an initial public offering is for a company to raise money by selling shares in the open market. An important secondary point is that the IPO provides liquidity to existing shareholders, making it far easier for them to trade and take profits (and losses) on what they own. Big banks underwrite IPOs — they go get the high-rolling, qualified investors and get them to commit millions of dollars to buy into the offering, collecting copious fees for themselves in the process, not to mention getting first crack at shares for their own products and funds. In short, everyone in an IPO process gets their beak wet except for the people who give the company its profits — its users. That might be fine for a car company, an iPhone company, or even a search engine company, but social media exists to connect users to companies and each other in unprecedented and previously impossible ways. Shouldn’t finance be one of them? That leads to…
4. Why not share the company itself? It’s fine to talk about technology’s power to change the world if you’re the one who’s going to profit from it. But this isn’t really a change: In fact it looks like a highly conventional way to run what everyone says is supposed to be a very transformative company. Facebook needed a gestation period, and its incredible growth in that period made it very special. The moment its IPO is over, it becomes one of a herd.
That’s why it should become a nearly one-of-a-kind company for the technology sector: a co-op. Invented in England in the 1840s, the co-op is a company organizational structure where membership is voluntary but members have democratic control and economic participation and in turn are supposed to act with concern for their community — in this case Facebook. Businesses of all kinds — for-profit and otherwise — are run through the co-op model, or variations of it.
- There is the Park Slope Food Coop, a crunchy place where 16,000 members (disclosure: I am one of them) buy groceries at just enough of a markup over wholesale to cover expenses (about 17 percent, making many items far cheaper than in other stores). They also run and staff the store, with the help of just a few paid employees.
- There is the San Remo, one of the most luxurious apartment buildings in Manhattan, where prices are in the tens of millions for a single apartment, and as in thousands of other co-op buildings, residents share the cost of maintenance and retain control over key property decisions.
- Then there is banking and insurance company USAA and mutual fund firm Vanguard, models for highly sophisticated financial services businesses that are run according to co-op principles and are highly successful and respected businesses.
But all of the businesses above use the co-op model’s social nature as secondary to their main business. For Facebook, social is the business.
Facebook wouldn’t be forgoing its fundraising if it abandoned its IPO and became a co-op. When I joined the Park Slope Coop, I had to pay a $25 membership fee and a $100 investment, the latter of which is refundable should I ever leave. In Facebook’s virtual community, its 845 million users could easily pay a small sum — say $5 in the U.S. and some locally adjusted equivalent in other countries — to become an owner. Some of that money would be used to buy out existing stock owners and set up the new management model — it would still have Zuckerberg as CEO with a management team, but with the same one vote that every other member has. Over time, if Facebook’s owners keep the cost of becoming a member as low as possible without in any way starving the site for cash, Facebook could even become the world’s first trillion-dollar company — just in a way no one has ever previously imagined.
Users who invested would earn the right to help govern the company. If it sounds unwieldy to let hundreds of millions of users govern a site, well, it may be at first. But as Zuckerberg himself will attest, his engineers are hard at work helping users connect to each other in ways previously impossible. Facebook already offers voting tools, organization pages, recommendation links, polling, etc. With the help of a management team and committee structure, it would be pretty easy to let members assign themselves to committees and shape Facebook into the community they want it to be. Besides, if there’s one person in the world not allowed to use the excuse that this undertaking would be too technically complex, it’s Mark Zuckerberg.
Zuckerberg may chafe at the idea that hundreds of millions of users are suddenly in control of his company, but think of a sample proposal. Say a user wants Facebook to give 10 percent of its income to charity.
- She creates a new page and persuades her friends to follow it. The page holds the pro and con discussions of the proposal.
- After hitting a certain threshold of followers, the page makes the Revenue Committee agenda, where a subcommittee is assigned to study its feasibility and write a summary about the proposal’s impact on Facebook, including how it would affect the bottom line.
- The committee then votes on the summary — if it’s approved, it goes into a general Facebook meeting, where the entire user base gets to vote. The beauty of this is twofold. First, only the best ideas percolate to the top; propose anything crazy, and it’s simply going to languish. Second, with Facebook’s technology, there need not be a formal meeting time — the proposal exists just like any new Facebook alert. If a user feels strongly about a proposal, he can even buy a targeted demographic ad!
As the site’s leader, the famously controlling Zuckerberg would still retain quite a large chunk of control in that he’d have to implement the strategy and actually make it work, and one would think that if he explained why a given proposal wasn’t a great idea, his words would carry great weight.
But ultimately the site would belong to the users, not a tiny management team. When Zuckerberg eventually decides to hang up his keyboard and retire, the company would not face the cult of personality problems that Apple did during Steve Jobs’s protracted illness — it would simply persevere.
In the meantime, Facebook would have plenty of capital to pay its engineers, thanks to its owners’ contributions. In good years, it could return dividends to members or explain to them that it was better to bank the money for future investment or rainy-day funds. In tough times, it could first ask members for low-interest loans before turning to the capital markets, perhaps using a Kickstarter-like platform to fund specific initiatives in the company. In other words, this is a model compatible with capitalism and competition, not a replacement for those things. The whole system fits almost perfectly with Zuckerberg’s investor letter saying that Facebook doesn’t “build services to make money; [it makes] money to build better services.”
Facebook will probably never be governed this way. Too many early investors simply stand to get too rich. But if Facebook is not to be a co-op, that means social networking — and all of the truly incredible tools, culture, community and change that its visionaries claim will change the way the world is wired — will really just reinforce the highly stratified and imperfect way the world works today.
Mark, put your money where your mouth is; after all, you already have more of it than you will ever need. If Facebook was truly built to change the way people relate to their world, that change should begin with how people relate to Facebook.
PHOTO: An employee works on a computer at the new headquarters of Facebook in Menlo Park, California, January 11, 2012. REUTERS/Robert Galbraith