There's nothing much heroic about Mark Zuckerberg or the social network he runs -- it's a website and he's just the nerdy awkward man-boy who runs the operation. Or is there something more? With the IPO coming up, there have been some indications that there's something special about Facebook. That it has some sort of magical super powers. In this weekend's Disruptions column, Bits Blog's Nick Bilton suggested Facebook had some sort of "Real- Life Spidey-Sense," in relation to the company's spot-on prescience when it comes to buying up start-ups. Bilton then continues with the Spider-Man comparison, ending with the most cliched of superhero references as he warns Zuck: "With great power comes great responsibility." While that adage most certainly applies to the 28-year-old-today (Happy Birthday!) CEO, can we really take this super-hero thing that much farther?
What is it: As Bilton describes it, Facebook has an eerie ability to buy up the right companies, companies it knows will succeed on the Internet. "Imagine if you had a superpower that would allow you to peer into the future of the Internet? It’s a pretty nerdy power compared to Spider-Man’s web-slinging, but you could use this superhuman ability to see what would be popular soon, and in some instances, change the future," he writes. For example, Bilton has a nice chart over on Bits Blog showing the success of Viddy and Socialcam, two Internet start-ups, after the Facebook purchase. From the looks of the graph, Facebook bought these two companies right before their big explosions, with both shooting up in popularity after Facebook's purchase.
Is this really a super hero thing? It's actually less of a magical power than just the power of Facebook's huge audience and its ability to see what people are using via Facebook connect. Because of the 800 million people to which the social network has access, any app it pushes through its service has a better chance of attracting users. "Facebook has so much power online that they have the ability to buy something at a low price and then make it go high by directing traffic accordingly," Jonathan Zittrain, a professor at Harvard Law School, told Bilton. And because of Facebook connect, which allows users to use third party apps on Facebook, the social network can see who is signing up for what -- so it can kind of tell what is getting popular. That's what happened with Instagram, for example. Though, as The New York Times's Jenna Wortham notes, Facebook has an uncanny ability to buy up the right companies, with the right talent.
What is it: Both super-heroes and villains have magical powers. The difference lies in their cause. Facebook might say its cause is the ability to make the world a more connected place. That's how Zuckerberg's note in Facebook's S1 puts it, at least. "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," it states. Seeing how a small group of people connect and then giving that app to the greater Facebook community seems like it falls under that vague goal.
Is this really a super-hero thing? It doesn't sound like Facebook always uses this for good. "Sociologically, this is called the Matthew effect, where the rich get richer and the poor get poorer," continues Zittrain. A lot of Facebook's actions come out of self-interest, rather than from an inane desire to help the greater good. As much as Zuck talks up the hacker way, It is a company trying to make money.
Secret Identity: Mark Zuckerberg the Dorkwad
What is it: Zuckerberg, like Peter Parker, is an unassuming nerd. People would never assume Peter Parker has all those powers. Zuck, too, with his awkward demeanor and sweaty palms tricks people into thinking he doesn't know what's what.
Is this really a super-hero thing? Yes and no. There's more to Mark Zuckerberg than his geeky facade. But, unlike a real super-hero, Zuck never does a complete transformation into super-man mode.
Costume: The Facebook Hoodie
What is it: See: Why Mark Zuckerberg Needs His Hoodie. He never takes it off, as it seems to have some sort of magical powers.
Is this really a super-hero thing? Most real superheros use their costumes as disguises. Zuck gets his power from his outfit. However, some superheros, like Batman, build powers into their suits.
What is it: Like Internet companies before it, as Facebook grows it will face concern that it's abusing its powers. "Facebook might also have to worry that if it highlights content from companies it owns, it could face antitrust claims with the Doctrine of Tying. The federal government used this legal concept when it went after Microsoft for forcing its Web browser on customers who bought the Windows operating system," explains Bilton. And, as we saw with Google and Microsoft, this type of thing weakens a once powerful company.
Is this really a super-hero thing? Usually villains go after a super-hero. This is more like a latent danger, which could possibly hurt the company, if provoked. Perhaps it's more like Facebook's kryptonite than its nemesis.
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.
We want to hear what you think about this article. Submit a letter to the editor or write to firstname.lastname@example.org.