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Can Facebook pursue a social mission and go public at the same time?

Mark Zuckerberg says Facebook is about more than making money – it has a 'social mission to make the world more open and connected.' Are the two goals compatible?

By Esha ChhabraDowser.org / February 7, 2012

Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg speaks to reporters at Harvard University in Cambridge, Mass., in November. While Facebook prepares for a public stock offering Zuckerberg has also told the public and potential investors that his company has a 'social mission' too.

Brian Snyder/Reuters/File

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Facebook’s IPO listing [Initial Public Offering, or first sale of stock to the public] has caused quite a stir in the business community.  

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But Zuckerberg writes in a lengthy letter that his missions behind Facebook are not purely monetary. Rather, he writes that Facebook was created with “a social mission – to make the world more open and connected.”  And he goes on to say, “We don’t build services to make money; we make money to build better services."

 "Facebook was not originally founded to be a company. We've always cared primarily about our social mission, the services we're building and the people who use them. This is a different approach for a public company to take, so I want to explain why I think it works...,” Zuckerberg says.

Bear in mind that this is a letter reaching out to potential investors. And its focus is not just on the monetary charms of getting a piece of the Facebook pie. Rather, Zuckerberg is arguing for a broader, deeper social impact.

So, what was the response to this social sentiment?

I would suspect that Mark Zuckerberg could say whatever he wants, but he’s probably still going to find that Wall Street is going to influence how he runs his company, said Danny Sullivan, an expert on the industry and editor of the web site Search Engine Land, to the New York Times.

Tom Foremski, a former FT journalist and blogger, called it a “vague” social mission without an outline of how the company would use some of its profits for social impact, either through a foundation or some other charitable organization.

“But that's about as far as he gets. He spends many paragraphs saying pretty much not much at all, wishy-washy phrases, said in different ways: how Facebook enables people to share, that sharing is good, that open government is good, and that sharing helps people's relationships; and how it's good to connect people, and to give people voice. At times he makes Facebook sound like a phone company. Reach out and share with someone – it makes the world a better place.”

While Facebook is anything but a social enterprise, Zuckerberg’s emphasis on the "social mission" of the company sparked debate about a multimillion- (or even billion-) dollar company talking about social impact but asking for $5 billion – are those two concepts compatible?

The SF Chronicle echoed this: "These days I think more and more people want to use services from companies that believe in something beyond simply maximizing profits," wrote Zuckerberg, who could be worth as much as $28.4 billion after the IPO.

Time Magazine’s Sam Gustin suggests that the two can co-exist, writing: "It’s also a dramatic example of a generational shift taking place among the entrepreneurial class, one that elevates social change as a priority along with commercial success." What do you think - purely commercial or possibly a blended approach of social and commercial?

This article originally appeared at Dowser.org.

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