Sorry Nick, Mark Zuckerberg Doesn't Owe You Fifty Dollars

By Paul Bradley Carr , written on February 5, 2012

From The News Desk

Nick Bilton wants his fifty bucks. The New York Times tech writer figures that's his share of Facebook's $100 billion valuation -- based on his own contribution to the "poking, liking and sharing on the site".

After all, Bilton argues, "without me, and the other 844,999,999 [users] Facebook would look like a scene from the postapocalyptic movie 'The Day After Tomorrow': bleak, desolate and really quite sad."

Bilton is joking, of course. Or at least I hope he is. After all, only someone without even the most basic grasp of economics would think that users are owed a dime of Facebook's big payday.

There's no doubt that Facebook would be a dull place indeed without all those users sharing their ill-advised party photos, or stalking their ex-girlfriends or sharing their emo-angst status updates. Nor is it up for debate that Facebook's crazy-high IPO valuation is a direct result of having attracted such a large number of addicts.

Equally, though, there's no suggestion that Mark Zuckerberg sent stormtroopers to prospective users' homes, threatening them with violence unless they signed up to his social network. People joined Facebook -- in ludicrously large numbers -- because they chose to. Because the package of free services that Facebook offers is so valuable (useful, fun, voyeuristically exciting...) that it outweighs the privacy costs and effort involved in constantly posting and liking and updating.

That quid pro quo was always clear: you surrender every last detail of your life and Facebook will improve your social and romantic prospects. Facebook won't charge you a bean for any of this, despite the small fortune it costs to keep the service live, but will instead profit from the aggregation of millions of users. If you don't like that deal, you don't have to use Facebook.

Basic economics.

And yet, and yet... every time a user-generated company like Facebook has a major 'liquidity event', the same chorus of entitled wailing begins. It happened with YouTube, it happened with the Huffington Post, it's happening with Facebook and you can be damned sure it'll happen with Twitter, Tumblr, Yelp and the rest sometime soon.

Less than a month after AOL's acquisition of the Huffington Post, Arianna Huffington was hit with a class action suit by a group of unpaid bloggers who felt they were entitled to a cut of the $315m selling price.  This despite the fact that there was no suggestion that those bloggers would ever be paid for their work: they chose to use HuffPost's platform to raise their profile, promote their agenda or any one of a hundred possible non-financial reasons. Again, no-one forced them to write for free.

Jealously is hardwired into human nature -- especially when someone makes a ton of money in a relatively short space of time. That "should have been me-ism" is the curse of every successful entrepreneur and the payday of a million attorneys. It should not, however, be a position shared by serious journalists.

And that's why I assume -- hope -- that Nick Bilton is joking. The idea that Mark Zuckeberg owes him a Grant is a fun premise for a column, but as a serious argument? Well..

Generally speaking, I cringe every time I see reporting of Facebook's IPO that references Aaron Sorkin's fictional Social Network movie. But on this occasion, there's a line -- certainly fictionalised as Sorkin has used it before -- which precisely sums up the response to any Facebook user who thinks he or she is owed a payday.

"If you guys were the inventors of Facebook, you'd have invented Facebook."

[Photo of Nick Bilton stolen from Nick Bilton's blog.]