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Inside Facebook – What’s It Worth?

I recently spent a chunk of my life reporting a story on Facebook , the social networking phenomenon that seems to have swept away every person on the planet under 24 years of age. Nineteen million users worth. Or, as one extraordinarily intense intern here at Fast Company put it, “My. Whole. Life. Is. On. Facebook.

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I recently spent a chunk of my life reporting a story on Facebook , the social networking phenomenon that seems to have swept away every person on the planet under 24 years of age. Nineteen million users worth. Or, as one extraordinarily intense intern here at Fast Company put it, “My. Whole. Life. Is. On. Facebook. SeriouslyIloveitsomuch.” Well. Seems worth a look, eh?

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The magazine version of the story, which debuts this week on the web and next week on newsstands, traces the history of the company, how it operates today, and how it plans to sweep away the rest of us. We speculate a bit on their future plans, as well. But you’ll also get a sense of Facebook’s 22-year-old founder Mark Zuckerberg. Like many 22-year-old CEOs, ahem, his personality is the subject of an interesting amount of debate. For example, I recently hosted a dinner party where friends – editors from three major national magazines, actually – got into a conversation about whether or not Zuckerberg was arrogant. They’d heard he is. He’s not, particularly. He’s actually pretty terrific – extraordinarily likeable, decent and funny. Equally terrific, by the way, is his merry band of co-founders, who, through the miracle of editing, got a bit of a short shrift in the magazine piece. I hope to make it up to them all in these posts.

But a significant amount of airtime is also being devoted to what Facebook may or may not be worth, so I thought I’d mention the elephant in the room first. Rumors that the company has fielded and spurned offers circling a billion dollars – from Yahoo, for example – have been bouncing around for months. For web 2.0 watchers, it is great sport. In the big picture, the curiosity makes sense – it’s hard to imagine people this young creating something this successful, and surviving the growing pains of public scrutiny so well. And a billion dollars (allegedly) is a lot of money. But specifically for businesses that live on the web, memories from the bubble of yesterdecade – epic stories of overvaluation and excess, business plans on backs-of-napkins, etc – have taken on powerful second lives as punch lines and cautionary tales. Hey: Lesser mortals, even well-meaning ones, have blown through investor money only to end up as occasional entries in “where are they now” columns. Or worse. And we all love the smell of schadenfraude in the morning. I mean, come on.

Facebook investor Peter Thiel put it this way – “The strange boom/bust cycle in the late ‘90s is a big part of things here. Most people who lived through that remember the bust more than they remember the boom. That distorts a lot of thinking.” (I lived through it, and he’s right.) His bigger point is that Zuckerberg’s youth works in his favor – he’s less likely to be haunted by a specter of imminent market meltdown and stay focused on building something worthwhile. And Zuckerberg, sounding a bit like a stranger in a strange land, had an interesting take on the exercise of company-building within the context of the exotic Valley vibe (he’s from a suburb of New York City):

They just want to have companies here – starting a start up is like a cool thing to do. That just isn’t the case on the East Coast. You don’t start a company for fun or to have a start up. It’s almost like we wanted to NOT have a company, and it took us a while to admit that this even was a company, and to get it incorporated and start hiring people instead of just building it out as a project we had in an informal way…

All the web 2.0 stuff or other entrepreneurs – there are a few who are really focused on building interesting things. And they’re cool, and I’m friends with a bunch of them. But there’s this whole other segment of the culture that we don’t plug into that much because it’s just not very aligned with what we want to do.

So what’s Facebook really worth? It’s hard to know without a good long look at their books, which they don’t share publicly. But as you’ll learn tomorrow, the owners believe it’s worth more than anything they may or may not have been offered thus far. And they are legitimately engaged in building a business and enjoying the ride. (And for a company that’s officially 1,160 days old today, it’s been a remarkably interesting one.) And although I suppose it’s possible that Facebook could seriously screw things up, I’m inclined to believe that they are up to the task. This is a pretty smart group – 200 strong – who think very deeply about what, how and why they do what they do. And as any weary Web 1.0 survivor can tell you, a company that is ramping up for the sole purpose of selling itself off to the highest bidder has a very specific feel to it, a Potemkin-like optimism that swings, often wildly, from overconfidence to desperation very quickly. Nothing like that seems to be happening at Facebook HQ.

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A quick heads up: In order to check out some of the features I’ll be talking about, you’ll have to register for the site. But fear not, you won’t have to share any information about yourself if you don’t want to. If you’re not a regular user of social networking sites, (or, if you’re like many people, simply an occasional voyeur when a friend or commentator points you to a particularly, uh, compelling MySpace page) you may be surprised at how much you enjoy using it. Even though the FC intern has thus far Resisted. Becoming. My. Friend. On. The. Site. – and Mark Zuckerberg was born the year I graduated college – I’ve managed to find my middle-aged way around just fine.