Argument

Facebook's a Company. Get Over It.

Why is there so much glee over Mark Zuckerberg's IPO woes?

Among the historic aspects of Facebook's mid-May initial public offering (IPO) is the schadenfreude that followed. Yes, there are good criticisms to be made of the IPO, not to mention of Facebook's privacy protections and user experience. But read between the lines of the anti-Facebook rants, and it becomes clear that many are slamming the company for acting in its true nature: as a profit-seeking business.

There was a palpable sense of glee as the media deemed the much-hyped IPO a flop and more still as the stock price proceeded to fall, from $38 per share at the opening bell on May 17 to below $28 two weeks later. Some declared they were leaving Facebook for good, and there's even a Twitter feed, @not_on_Facebook, tracking Facebook defections.

This is not simply a reaction to the much-maligned IPO. At the core of the public backlash is the growing belief that Facebook is profiting by selling out its users. My question is: Why the surprise? We project our own aspirations onto companies like Facebook, wanting them to be about intimate connection, self-expression, and even revolution. Then we feel weirdly betrayed when they act in their commercial interests. But Facebook is a business: It's time to get over it.

Facebook can be a thoroughly personal experience. People entrust it with their relationships and their memories. More importantly, they use it to define themselves. And even though some use Facebook for commercial self-promotion or to sell their wares, many others use it to express their personality, shape their identity, and interact with others. "It creates a conflict, real or perceived," says Alexander Chernev, a professor of marketing at Northwestern's Kellogg School of Management. "People don't want their self-expression to be used with commercial intent."

Now that Facebook is enormous -- 900 million active users and counting -- people feel like they have to be there. Andrew McLaughlin, vice president of Tumblr, says Facebook has become a kind of "social utility." We've come to view Facebook as if it were a cable, phone, or electricity company, and people "always feel jerked around, underappreciated, and underserviced by utilities," McLaughlin told me over email. In Facebook's case, "they take for granted its amazing features and get grumpy about the company's perceived (and, in my view, unavoidable, at Facebook's scale) indifference to them as individuals." In the end, we've created this monster: Facebook feels unavoidable because so many people have chosen to be there.

The problem is that nobody wants to pay for it. The storage of billions of digital photographs, not to mention the labor of thousands of employees, is not free. Facebook makes much of its revenue by allowing marketers to target users based on information they have shared. This rubs some people the wrong way. But it's unlikely that Facebook would be as big as it is today had it imposed a monthly subscription fee.

When companies try to make money off user-generated content, some users will resent them for it. Many unpaid bloggers for the Huffington Post were angry when the company was sold to AOL for $315 million. Some even sued Huffington Post and AOL for profiting from their free labor. But hadn't they benefited from the free platform and promotion the Huffington Post had provided?

In Facebook's case, adding insult to injury is the fact that CEO Mark Zuckerberg, a man in his 20s, made so much so quickly. "The pace of technological change is so fast, companies go from underdog to schadenfreude in a heartbeat," says Andy Kessler, a writer and investor based in Silicon Valley. People are less resentful of Warren Buffett, Kessler added, in part because he is perceived to have accumulated his wealth over a long period of time.

There is a feeling that by getting rich, Zuckerberg has somehow sold us out. But while Facebook celebrates the larger values of openness and connectivity, Zuckerberg doesn't pretend that Facebook is anything other than a business. He even said that the role of social media in the Egyptian Revolution was "overblown." Zuckerberg may not be the most likable guy, though it's hard to tell how much The Social Network has shaped our impressions of him. In any event, our expectations seem unrealistic. It's a real problem if people feel that Zuckerberg can't be trusted to protect our privacy or data. However, if he just seems greedy, and maybe a bit of a jerk, he wouldn't be the first CEO to have those qualities.

People spend so much time on Facebook (in just one month last year, on average users in the aggregate were there for nearly 10 billion minutes per day) that it has become part of our collective identity. People thus want to think of the company as having a loftier mission. Because if not, what does it say about us? Facebook is a transformative, even revolutionary, technology. It liberated Egyptians from three decades of tyranny! It can't just be a corporation … can it?

Facebook is hardly the only technology company on which we've projected our hopes and dreams. Mike Daisey, his fabricating troubles aside, highlights our complex relationship with Apple in his monologue "The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs." He points out the inherent tension in the fact that our aesthetically divine iPhones, so much a part of how we see ourselves, were built on the backs of cheap Chinese labor, making Apple very wealthy in the process. Google suffers from a similar problem of having to square its whimsical image and "Don't Be Evil" mantra with its role as one of the most powerful corporations on the planet. (Everyone still loves Twitter, but just wait until they start making real money.)

Nor should we let schadenfreude distract us from the larger story. Facebook, Twitter, Google, and Apple are among the most powerful ambassadors of Brand America. Their success reflects well on us as a country -- we make products that hundreds of millions of people around the world love to use -- so why aren't we celebrating it? James Othmer, a global creative director at the communications firm Young & Rubicam, puts it this way: "At a time when American innovation is at an all-time low, supposedly, you have this company whose invention is creating untold wealth, at least for its founders, and it is completely reviled."

Dov Seidman, author of How: Why How We Do Anything Means Everything in Business (and in Life) argues that across the board, people are demanding more from corporations. People don't want to feel like they are just "clickthroughs" or "pageviews," Seidman told me. For customers to stick with any company, there needs to be a "deeper glue," such as trust.

In the case of Facebook, where people are providing personal data, the need for trust is even greater. And that's fine. We should hold the company to a high standard. But it shouldn't be punished for acting like a business.

EMMANUEL DUNAND/AFP/GettyImages

Argument

The Real Reason to Intervene in Syria

Cutting Iran's link to the Mediterranean Sea is a strategic prize worth the risk.

We're not done with the possibility of an Israeli strike on Iran. Given that the current round of negotiations with the world's major powers will not fundamentally change Iran's nuclear program, the question of an Israeli attack on Iran's nuclear facilities is likely to return to center stage later this year. In addition to hard-headed diplomacy and economic sanctions, there is an important step the United States can take to change Israel's calculations -- helping the people of Syria in their battle against President Bashar al-Assad's regime.

Iran's nuclear program and Syria's civil war may seem unconnected, but in fact they are inextricably linked. Israel's real fear -- losing its nuclear monopoly and therefore the ability to use its conventional forces at will throughout the Middle East -- is the unacknowledged factor driving its decision-making toward the Islamic Republic. For Israeli leaders, the real threat from a nuclear-armed Iran is not the prospect of an insane Iranian leader launching an unprovoked nuclear attack on Israel that would lead to the annihilation of both countries. It's the fact that Iran doesn't even need to test a nuclear weapon to undermine Israeli military leverage in Lebanon and Syria. Just reaching the nuclear threshold could embolden Iranian leaders to call on their proxy in Lebanon, Hezbollah, to attack Israel, knowing that their adversary would have to think hard before striking back.

That is where Syria comes in. It is the strategic relationship between the Islamic Republic and the Assad regime that makes it possible for Iran to undermine Israel's security. Over the three decades of hostility between Iran and Israel, a direct military confrontation has never occurred -- but through Hezbollah, which is sustained and trained by Iran via Syria, the Islamic Republic has proven able to threaten Israeli security interests.

The collapse of the Assad regime would sunder this dangerous alliance. Defense Minister Ehud Barak, arguably the most important Israeli decision-maker on this question, recently told CNN's Christiane Amanpour that the Assad regime's fall "will be a major blow to the radical axis, major blow to Iran.... It's the only kind of outpost of the Iranian influence in the Arab world ... and it will weaken dramatically both Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas and Islamic Jihad in Gaza."

The rebellion in Syria has now lasted more than a year. The opposition is not going away, and it is abundantly clear that neither diplomatic pressure nor economic sanctions will force Assad to accept a negotiated solution to the crisis. With his life, his family, and his clan's future at stake, only the threat or use of force will change the Syrian dictator's stance. Absent foreign intervention, then, the civil war in Syria will only get worse as radicals rush in to exploit the chaos there and the spillover into Jordan, Lebanon, and Turkey intensifies.

U.S. President Barack Obama's administration has been understandably wary of engaging in an air operation in Syria similar to the campaign in Libya, for three main reasons. Unlike the Libyan opposition forces, the Syrian rebels are not unified and do not hold territory. The Arab League has not called for outside military intervention as it did in Libya. And the Russians, the longtime patron of the Assad regime, are staunchly opposed.

Libya was an easier case. But other than the laudable result of saving many thousands of Libyan civilians from Muammar al-Qaddafi's regime, it had no long-lasting consequences for the region. Syria is harder -- but success there would be a transformative event for the Middle East. Not only would another ruthless dictator succumb to mass popular opposition, but Iran would no longer have a Mediterranean foothold from which to threaten Israel and destabilize the region.

A successful intervention in Syria would require substantial diplomatic and military leadership from the United States. Washington should start by declaring its willingness to work with regional allies like Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey to organize, train, and arm Syrian rebel forces. The announcement of such a decision would, by itself, likely cause substantial defections from the Syrian military. Then, using territory in Turkey and possibly Jordan, U.S. diplomats and Pentagon officials could start strengthening and unifying the opposition. Once the opposition knows real outside help is on the way, it should be possible over time to build a coherent political leadership based on the Syrian National Council as well as a manageable command and control structure for the Free Syrian Army, both of which are now weak and divided. This will be difficult and time-consuming, but we should remember that the Syrian civil war is now destined to go on for years, whether the outside world intervenes or not.

A second step worth serious consideration is to secure international support for a coalition air operation. Russia will never support such a mission, so there is no point operating through the U.N. Security Council. And given the reluctance of some European states, NATO may be difficult as well. Therefore, this operation will have to be a unique combination of Western and Middle East countries. Given Syria's extreme isolation within the Arab League, it should be possible to gain strong support from most Arab countries, led by Saudi Arabia and Turkey. U.S. leadership is indispensable, since most of the key countries will follow only if Washington leads.

Some worry that U.S. involvement risks a confrontation with Russia. However, the Kosovo example -- where NATO went to war against another Russian ally, while Moscow did little more than complain -- shows otherwise. In that case, Russia had genuine ethnic and political ties to the Serbs, which don't exist between Russia and Syria. Managing Russia's reaction to outside intervention will be difficult but should not be exaggerated.

Arming the Syrian opposition and creating a coalition air force to support them is a low-cost, high-payoff approach. Whether an air operation should just create a no-fly zone that grounds the regimes' aircraft and helicopters or actually conduct air to ground attacks on Syrian tanks and artillery should be the subject of immediate military planning. And as Barak, the Israeli defense minister, also noted, Syria's air defenses may be better than Libya's but they are no match for a modern air force.

The larger point is that as long as Washington stays firm that no U.S. ground troops will be deployed, à la Kosovo and Libya, the cost to the United States will be limited. Victory may not come quickly or easily, but it will come. And the payoff will be substantial. Iran would be strategically isolated, unable to exert its influence in the Middle East. The resulting regime in Syria will likely regard the United States as more friend than enemy. Washington would gain substantial recognition as fighting for the people in the Arab world, not the corrupt regimes.

With the Islamic Republic deprived of its gateway to the Arab world, the Israelis' rationale for a bolt from the blue attack on its nuclear facilities would diminish. A new Syrian regime might eventually even resume the frozen peace talks regarding the Golan Heights.

In Lebanon, Hezbollah would be cut off from its Iranian sponsor, since Syria would no longer be a transit point for Iranian training, assistance, and missiles. All these strategic benefits combined with the moral purpose of saving tens of thousands of civilians from murder at the hands of the Assad regime -- some 12,000 have already been killed, according to activists -- make intervention in Syria a calculated risk, but still a risk worth taking.

With the veil of fear now lifted, the Syrian people are determined to fight for their freedom. America can and should help them -- and by doing so help Israel and help reduce the risk of a far more dangerous war between Israel and Iran.

STR/AFP/GettyImages