Privacy is private for a reason: We are, despite the efforts of shrinks and professional optimists, imperfect, wayward, foolish, star-crossed, selfish, neurotic and often anxious; we are also altruistic, beneficent, occasionally brave. Privacy is a place to obsess about all this. As Hannah Arendt once argued, the ancient Greeks viewed the household, the venue for natural processes like birth and death, as opaque and private, meaning none-of-your-beeswax, in contrast to the public and the political. Spun a different way, social media is another extension of that '60s mantra: "The personal is political." Part of the genius of Facebook, which has nothing to do with ads or revenue models, is a recognition of that. Zuckerberg seems to have sensed that folks want to interact with other folks, on their own terms, with their hair done and their sanitized facts pinned to their chest. What should I wear? Flip-flops, sneakers, dancing shoes. What am I? A party girl, a sport, a geek, a Tea Partier or an anarchist with a plan. Now humanity has long dressed up for company. But Facebook goes further, arguing that you should perform more of your private life on its stage. You pick the audience, choose the song and position the lights. We'll sell tickets.
Facebook obviously makes a lot of money at this. Up to this point, Facebook has been a private entity, which means it's a lot less transparent than, say, many Facebook pages of teenagers getting trashed. Zuckerberg himself, despite his own Facebook profile and a Hollywood biopic, remains elusive. Now that Facebook is going public, so too will Zuckerberg. He will assume public responsibilities, to regulators and shareholders, not to say customers like advertisers and users: He will be a central figure in governance. This will demand greater transparency and far more public appearances. Facebook's results will now be a quarter-by-quarter drama, complete with conference calls and a close parsing of everything Zuckerbergian. And yet, from a control perspective, Zuckerberg will retain a tight grip. In some ways, he will trade one powerful ownership bloc, venture capitalists, for another, public shareholders. But he will continue to run this public company as privately as possible. Control, in fact, is synonymous with privacy, which is a strange Facebook paradox. He retains control by maintaining appearances, by performing.
For decades now, we've seen roles shifting for public and private. The distinction between public and private companies was once sharp and easily delimited. Above a certain size, companies tapped the public for equity, and the secret to the regulation of public companies was disclosure. But with the rise of private equity (and the swoon in IPOs), that dividing line grew murkier. Private equity, despite intermittent PR woes, grew as the complexities and dysfunctions of public corporate governance became more apparent. Disclosure became more problematic as mounting complexity made its demands. Companies often flipped between public and private; and firms like SecondMarket arose to allow "private" shares to be traded. We also became painfully aware of how private interests -- free riders or self-interested agents -- could shanghai public management and control for private, selfish, nonaligned ends. Agency issues drove us to squint into the velvety dark and private precincts of the heart where conflict and corruption may (or may not) lurk. Now, as in a Facebook world, private is public and public is private and real and unreal watusi. Facebook and Zuckerberg did not invent these complexities. But both the company and its founder certainly contain them.
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