Facebook in ‘social enterprise Facebook’ shock

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.

 

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3 responses to “Facebook in ‘social enterprise Facebook’ shock

  1. Great piece. We must also keep sight of the role of capitalism in all of this. Not the current free for all, rape and pillage capitalism, but the one described by Adam Smith in which wider self-interest operated for the good of all participants in the market.

    It is these same market forces that drive Facebook and Twitter to be successful on a micro level, providing channels for user reward and recognition, and these elements of capitalism are ones that social enterprises must build into their business models. It is important to remember that social enterprise does not have a monopoly on making social impacts and it is equally important that we use the power of capitalism to drive social enterprise to a scale where it can offset the harms often done by purely commercial enterprise in the pursuit of money.

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  2. Ah David, this was kind of anticipated.
    It was Feb 2008 and to put this into context, Bill Gates had just conceived Creative Capitalism and we’d written to the US Senate Committee on Foreign Relations requesting their support for “an alternative form of capitalism, where profits and/or aid money are put to use in investment vehicles with the singular purpose of helping the world’s poorest and most vulnerable people.”. We’d described how this would cost the same as what was being spent each week in Iraq.

    It was time to distinguish between social media and social enterprise with an article asking ‘What is Social Enterpise?’:

    “So it is safe to say that all these players in the Information Revolution — the enterprises that created it — have engendered almost immeasurable social benefit by way of connecting people of the world together and giving us opportunity to communicate with each other, begin to understand each other, and if we want, try to help each other.

    It is that last phrase — “try to help each other” — which is what the phrase “social enterprise” is getting at. As Bill Gates said in 2000, “poor people don’t need computers.” and rejected a business approach to alleviating poverty. That statement served to mark the clear distinction between what traditional capitalism did and did not do. Gates’ aim at that time was to profit from people who could afford his company’s products, while those who couldn’t were largely or completely ignored. That has been the accepted limit of traditional capitalism. It has been a marvelous means of social benefit and economic advancement for many people. Nevertheless, those excluded are just left out.

    The term “social enterprise” in the various but similar forms in which it is being used today — 2008 — refers to enterprises created specifically to help those people that traditional capitalism and for profit enterprise don’t address for the simple reason that poor or insufficiently affluent people haven’t enough money to be of concern or interest. Put another way, social enterprise aims specifically to help and assist people who fall through the cracks. Allowing that some people do not matter, as things are turning out, allows that other people do not matter and those cracks are widening to swallow up more and more people. Social enterprise is the first concerted effort in the Information Age to at least attempt to rectify that problem, if only because letting it get worse and worse threatens more and more of us. Growing numbers of people are coming to understand that “them” might equal “me.” Call it compassion, or call it enlightened and increasingly impassioned self-interest. Either way, we are all in this together, and we will each have to decide for ourselves what it means to ignore someone to death, or not.”

    http://www.ecademy.com/node.php?id=169617

    After the economic collapse, It was a member of that Committee who later that year announced plans for a national department of social enterprise and a social innovation fund, as we’d suggested: Just in a different place.

    http://www.socialedge.org/blogs/dr-o/archive/2008/11/12/obama-promises-social-entrepreneurship-agency

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  3. Thinking back to 2004, I recall that this was the year when I took up social networking in earnest. It was September and I rallied a group together to become Friends of Beslan. Yahooo had a rudimentary database and this was used for the contact details of victiim families. The objective was to connect in the spirit of friendship and compassion. This led to engagement with children who returned drawings and letters with the help of local volunteer translators and we were able to fund small comforts through the mechanism of a prepaid ATM card and a certain amount of trust. I was told that the drawings would be used in a book to raise funding and didn’t do anything with them. Facebbok later gave the opportunity to share some of the pictures:

    http://www.facebook.com/jeff.mowatt?sk=photos

    My colleague Terry was on his way back to Ukraine in time for the Orange Revolution, and looking back at the business plan he completed 6 months earlier, it had offered the then incredible suggestion that the failure of capitalism would lead to uprisings.

    “The opportunity for poverty relief was identified not only as a moral imperative, but also as an increasingly pressing strategic imperative. People left to suffer and languish in poverty get one message very clearly: they are not important and do not matter. They are in effect told that they are disposable, expendable. Being left to suffer and die is, for the victim, little different than being done away with by more direct means. Poverty, especially where its harsher forms exist, puts people in self-defence mode, at which point the boundaries of civilization are crossed and we are back to the law of the jungle: kill or be killed. While the vast majority of people in poverty suffer quietly and with little protest, it is not safe to assume that everyone will react the same way. When in defence of family and friends, it is completely predictable that it should be only a matter of time until uprisings become sufficient to imperil an entire nation or region of the world. People with nothing have nothing to lose. Poverty was therefore deemed not only a moral catastrophe but also a time bomb waiting to explode. Poverty reduction and relief became the overriding principle and fundamental social objective in the emerging P-CED model.

    Dealing with poverty is nothing new. The question became ‘how does poverty still exist in a world with sufficient resources for a decent quality of life for everyone?’ The answer was that we have yet to develop any economic system capable redistributing finite resources in a way that everyone has at minimum enough for a decent life: food, decent housing, transportation, clothing, health care, and education. The problem has not been lack of resources, but adequate distribution of resources. Capitalism is the most powerful economic engine ever devised, yet it came up short with its classical, inherent profit-motive as being presumed to be the driving force. Under that presumption, all is good in the name of profit became the prevailing winds of international economies — thereby giving carte blanche to the notion that greed is good because it is what has driven capitalism. The 1996 paper merely took exception with the assumption that personal profit, greed, and the desire to amass as much money and property on a personal level as possible are inherent and therefore necessary aspects of any capitalist endeavour. While it is in fact very normal for that to be the case, it simply does not follow that it must be the case.”

    http://www.box.com/shared/y3tpik8eg6

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