Facebook goes public and faces new accountability

Molly Wood Feb 2, 2012

Facebook has finally filed to become a publicly traded company. It happened after the close of the markets yesterday. The company will trade under the symbol FB. You’ve probably been hearing a lot about this event for some time and I would imagine at least one bottle of champagne was uncorked at Facebook headquarters when it finally happened.

And even if you’re not a big time investor, chances are you and a lot of people you know are on Facebook. It’s part of life: 800 million people are already on the social site, started not that many years ago in a Harvard dorm, and it’s still growing. But now it grows into being a publicly traded entity and there will be some differences.

So how does a publicly held Facebook act different than a privately held one? John Battelle is one of the founders of Wired Magazine, he’s a tech journalist and entrepreneur, he’s been following big tech companies closely for many years.  Battelle says a public Facebook will be governed by more rules and regulations and that will give users some power over the company. “That power — limited as it may be or difficult to exert as it may be — is very important that there be some of that power on the other side of the ledger, also known as the consumer, the user, or the shareholder,” Battelle says, “because Facebook holds so much of our private data, and there’s a certain thing about putting that private data in a public trust if you will that I think is worthy of being a public company.”

Big web companies have traditionally had a hard time sticking around. Sure, Google has held pretty strong for a while now and Amazon is pretty well-established. But do you remember when Netscape was huge? Or when AOL dominated everyone’s web experience? How about Yahoo? Or the one-time king of all social media, the mighty MySpace? The web is littered with sand castles, once impressive structures that were washed away with the tide. How does Facebook avoid becoming just another blip in history?

“It’s predicated on level of user trust,” says Battelle, “no one’s paying for a Facebook subscription, and should a better service come along, it’s probably not that hard to sign up for it and decide that’s where you want to be. On the other hand, Facebook has a very strong network locked in, which is to say if you leave Facebook and go to a new service, it’s not valuable that new service unless all your friends leave.”

So leaving on your own is easy, getting everyone you know to follow you is a bit trickier. Another tricky issue for Facebook is balancing privacy and profitability when the business model depends on getting users to share information. So the thing at the root of the business is the thing that freaks people out the most. “I think we’re in a phase where as a society, we’re renegotiating our relationship to ourselves, to each other, and how much information we’re willing to share,” Battelle says, “and quite frankly what the value of that information is. I just recently saw a study that said the value of the data Google captures about us as we search and use Gmail and all its other services was roughly $5,000 a year. And, you know, at some point, I imagine a consumer might say well, gosh, cut me in.”

Also in this program, The Robot Roundup: Animal Edition. We check in on three types of robots that imitate critters in order to serve people. The wonderfully named Scalybot 2 was built to resemble a snake in order to perform search and rescue operations. A fleet of hummingbird-like helicopter robots from the University of Pennsylvania can fly in perfect formation (check out the video below, especially the figure 8). And researchers in Singapore have developed an itty-bitty crab-like robot that crawls into your stomach and rips out cancer cells with its hook and pincer. You know, just like real crabs. 

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