An IPO bigger than the rapture

Posted Feb. 05, 2012, at 6:14 p.m.

Jesus had better not return to earth this week. We will be too busy with the Facebook IPO to deal with Him. “That’s very nice, Lord,” we’ll say, escorting Him to a chair in the corner. “But we’re looking at an initial stock price of $100! Initial! Do you know what that means?”

“Stop talking to Him, He only had 11 friends,” someone will shout. “And 12 subscribers.”

The Facebook IPO has passed through the stratosphere of hype and is hovering somewhere between “Star Wars: Episode 1 — The Phantom Menace” and M. Night Shyamalan’s second film.

The Facebook IPO is going to cure cancer and also tell us what glasses flatter our face shapes. It is going to find us dates on the Internet who are neither creepy nor excessively earnest. What penicillin did for medicine, the Facebook IPO will do for everything else.

And I fear that I’m understating things.

I am not sure how Facebook decided to value itself at $5 billion. Consider that Facebook contains Farmville and users like my friend who updates on an hourly basis to say how “fierce” she is feeling. And this IPO is supposed to spin the questionable straw of Facebook user profiles into, well, actual gold.

How? No one is quite sure. They say that if you are using something for free, you aren’t the consumer — you’re the product. If so, I am the product, and anyone who invests in Facebook is investing in me — or, more specifically, in my capacity to click on ads. I should warn investors that, while I excel at clicking on ads, I am less good at buying things afterward.

This monetization question is the big problem of the Social Internet: Everyone’s here, but how do we make them pay for things without undermining the premise?

People expect a lot from this IPO. But I’m chary. Facebook has a strange track record when it comes to privacy, and pressure to squeeze money from users for its advertisers seems unlikely to improve things on that front. The company’s unofficial philosophies are “move fast and break things” — which might explain Timeline — and that it’s easier to beg forgiveness than ask permission.

Facebook users are the definition of a captive audience. And with the failure of a viable alternative to emerge in Google(plus)+, things are likely to remain that way for a while. Half the world’s Internet population sounds like it should be worth $5 billion. But monetizing us? Forget the loaves and fishes — that’s a miracle I’d like to see.

Alexandra Petri is a member of The Washington Post’s editorial staff.

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