I’m not much of a financial maven. Like most people in their — ahem — early 30’s with a busy career and family life, I would rather pay someone else to worry about my investments for me. I read my statements every month but because my investment bank has changed hands three times in the past five years, finding the place where it says whether I made money or not is increasingly more difficult. I do occasionally put on CNBC when I want to have a nap. What can I say? Talk of light sweet crude futures has a soothing effect on me.
But when Facebook went public last month, I was enthralled. I had the real-time quote open all day at work. I even pulled it up occasionally to show my kids (I’m a high school English teacher). It didn’t have anything to do with English, but it gave them something interesting to write about on what was otherwise a lazy Friday afternoon. As they hadn’t had formal Economics yet, it served as a teachable moment in American capitalism. Yes, kids, a number followed by nine zeroes is a billion.
It wasn’t because I was considering investing. First off, I need my wife’s permission before withdrawing more than a hamburger’s-worth. Second, anyone who even had one business course in college, like I did, could see where that number was headed by the end of the day. That’s not to say that the stock won’t come back to its IPO level sometime, but that day is a long way off.
It was partially because I was personally invested. Here is a company whose “product,” for better or worse, I use every day. It provides me a certain sense of joy (and trepidation… and annoyance) occasionally. There are other companies whose products I use every day, like Apple and Nissan, but I don’t feel compelled to watch their stocks like a hawk. This was something a little different. Historic, yes. But I could also only watch the video of SpaceX Mission Control for a couple of minutes before switching off to move the pitchers around on my fantasy baseball team.
As I was discussing the situation with my students, I realized that it was because I was Facebook’s product. I was what they were selling. And I wanted to see what my value was.
It’s no secret that Facebook’s business model involves mining its users for information – that they willingly provide – and then selling it to their advertising partners. Intelligent people realize this and either make the conscious decision to participate or not, with 800 million choosing to participate in one form or another.
Within the first couple days of trading, CNBC.com tracked not only the stock price, but what it meant to Facebook’s major players. As the quote went up (or, more often, down), the major shareholders’ net worth was adjusted accordingly. Each little blip of the stock meant Mark Zuckerberg made or lost roughly $100 million. I stared at it, amazed at the amounts of money that were moving around, all because of a website. Then I went to that same website for my hourly check of what’s going on.
My sister had posted a status update about her pregnancy, so I “liked” it and said to myself “Well, there’s a nickel for Zuck.” Now his advertisers know that I like fetuses and will bombard me with gestation-related ads.
Then I posted a picture of my daughter from last weekend’s activities at the beach. Certainly pictures have to be worth more, right? I guess that was a dime to that squirrelly tax dodger Saverin.
I caught myself.
I’m a college-educated professional and I’m letting myself be exploited. I expect that kind of behavior from my students, who still think Justin Bieber is someone worth their time. But I’m intelligent! I can capably discuss Nietzsche (that is, if anyone wanted to listen). Would I let myself perform some sort of degrading job just because my friends were doing it as well? Of course not! I have principles.
So I shut the laptop, drove home, and reconsidered my Facebook future. Was the service Facebook provides to me worth the billions of dollars it just made? Every other company that I am a patron of provides me with some sort of tangible benefit. If I stop for gas at Shell, its revenue goes up a little bit and I get to drive around for another week. It’s a win-win.
But with Facebook, Zuck just made himself enough money to buy Greece (and maybe Spain, depending on how desperate the EU is) and all I got out of it is information about a pregnancy that I already knew about and the ability to share a picture of my daughter with my old friends from high school, who probably won’t even open it because my kid is a lot cuter than theirs. I’m not begrudging the man his success. It is America, after all. I’m just choosing not to help him obtain it.
I went home, opened a beer, and contemplated living off the social grid. Before I could explain my new sense of online calm, my wife excitedly barged in. She asked if I had seen the nonsense one of our friends posted. I instinctively reached for my phone.
She was right! It was nonsense!
I guess we’re all just the fuel in Zuckerberg’s yacht. And we couldn’t be happier about it.