“Facebook was not originally created to be a company. It was built to accomplish a social mission – to make the world more open and connected. We think it’s important that everyone who invests in Facebook understands what this mission means to us, how we make decisions and why we do the things we do.”
So says Mark Zuckerberg, founder of popular social networking website, Facebook, in a letter that forms part of the company’s registration to float on the stock market (valued at between $80 Billion and $100 Billion). It’s becoming increasingly difficult to remember what life was like before the creation of Facebook. It’s certainly made an impact on the world of social enterprise. I did attend a few meetings with enthusiastic up-and-coming social entrepreneurs before Facebook’s launch in 2004 – at the time, quite a few of them we’re inventing new currencies that were a bit like money but much better – but I can’t remember any of them claiming to be working on a new website that would be the social enterprise equivalent of Friendster.
Fortunately, though, it’s no longer necessary for anyone to worry about creating the social enterprise Facebook because Mr Zuckerberg is happy for that role to fulfilled by Facebook itself and who’s going to argue with a bloke whose shares are worth $28 Billion?
That said, the specific reason why I’m not going to argue with the claim that Facebook has a social mission – or, at least, was initially built to accomplish one – is that I think it’s at least partially true. Unlike the founder of Wikipedia, Jimmy Wales, who doesn’t even take a salary from his world famous website, Mark Zuckerberg hasn’t actively avoided making a few dollars from his creation but equally there’s no suggestion that this was his primary motive. Assuming that this book is partially true, a lot of the inspiration was the desire of its founders to make a name for themselves on campus and, of course, to meet girls but more important was their excitement about the idea, which grew into excitement about the possibility of making an impact on the world by changing the way people communicate.
Clearly, with 845 million monthly users, Facebook does have a social impact. All business have a social impact and as a business used by a phenomenal number of people around the world, Facebook has a particularly big one but when we in the social enterprise world use the phrase ‘social impact’, we generally take it to include the silent word ‘positive’ at the beginning.
‘Does Facebook have a positive impact on global society?’ is a question that’s probably already starting to appear as an essay question at universities and business schools with a particular interest in social and ethical business. Mr Zuckerberg’s letter certainly provides an interesting outline of what the business intends to do and why. Here’s a further extract: “There is a huge need and a huge opportunity to get everyone in the world connected, to give everyone a voice and to help transform society for the future. The scale of the technology and infrastructure that must be built is unprecedented, and we believe this is the most important problem we can focus on.”
As Clay Shirky’s Here Comes Everybody explains, social media has create new ways for people to connect with each other and bring about social change. The Arab Spring, that unfolded during 2011, may not have happened primarily because of social media but social media certainly did play a big role in the way that it happened.
The point for us in the social enterprise world is to understand both that our sector does not have the monopoly on social impact and, crucially, that we do not have the monopoly on positive social impact. Whether or not we think that Facebook is changing the world for the better, making it worse or is somewhere in between, there are billions of people in the world whose lives are not affected by social enterprise but are affected by the social impact of mainstream businesses.
Mainstream businesses do good both by providing people with stuff they need and want at prices they can afford, and by providing employment. Mainstream businesses also do things that are not so good. The challenge is both to encourage the growth of social enterprises that have a positive social impact – and to make the argument for mainstream business to find the balance between economic success and achieving positive social aims.