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Facebook's Bid To Fund Its 'Social Mission'

Around 845 million people now visit Facebook each month.
Around 845 million people now visit Facebook each month.
When Facebook offers stock for sale to the public in the coming weeks, it hopes to raise a lot of money.

About $5 billion.

If it succeeds, it would be the biggest initial public offering of any technology stock in U.S. history and would help the company maintain its position as an Internet trendsetter.

Around 845 million people visit Facebook each month, according to company figures -- about one-sixth of the world's population.

It is also the No. 1 social-networking site in more than 100 countries, with its fastest growth in India and Brazil.

In what CEO Mark Zuckerberg describes as a "social mission," the eight-year-old company aims to bring its users closer together and make the world more open and connected.

It also stands to take its place among the United States' wealthiest companies and expand its future income-generating opportunities.

Many Possible Revenue Streams

"Partly because they are sitting on so much information and partly because they have a social-networking platform, it is in fact a platform that would lend itself not only to connecting people, as they do today, but also providing them with certain services," says Viktor Mayer-Schoenberger, a professor at Oxford University's Internet Institute.

"[One can] see them as perhaps a content-delivery platform or see them as a platform for marketing and selling personal information among its users. There are lots of possible additional revenue streams, but what this all means is that Facebook at its core is looking for an additional business model."

Last year, Facebook's visitors brought the company revenues of about $3.7 billion, mostly from advertising.

But the information members provide about themselves when they join social-networking sites makes targeted deliveries of far more services than just advertising.

Opportunities abound for e-commerce, social gaming, and music and movie downloads, to name just a few.

Zuckerberg 'Doesn't Believe' In Privacy

However, providing such targeted services comes with risks. It is almost certain to make the boundaries of Internet privacy still more uncertain. And that will test not just how much people want to reveal online, but also will require Facebook to find the right balance or lose customers.

"The biggest obstacle to Facebook's future growth is its existing DNA; namely, Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook's founder, famously said that he doesn't believe in privacy," says Mayer-Schoenberger.

"And so complete transparency has been built into the initial DNA, the initial culture of Facebook. Now as Facebook is evolving, Facebook has to come to terms with the need and the desire of so many of its users to have privacy."
Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg
Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg

Neither Facebook nor its users have forgotten "Quit Facebook Day," an online event in May 2010 when Facebook users threatened to terminate their accounts due to privacy concerns.

Only a few tens of thousands of people actually did, but the message was clear.

Many observers expect Facebook to use at least part of its expected $5 billion war chest for campaigns to change people's sensitivity about privacy, both through publicity and by lobbying regulators.

Tackling Cell-Phone Advertising

But Facebook is also likely to use its war chest to try to overcome what remains its greatest revenue challenge today. That is, the difficulty of delivering advertising through mobile phones when half of Facebook's visitors today use mobile devices.

One strategy may be to insert "sponsored posts" into mobile users' downloads. Another may be to try to push the public further toward large-screen mobile devices like "tablets", which are more advertising friendly.

The only certainty about Facebook's bold expansion is that it believes its customers will follow.

Today, the average U.S. user spends almost eight hours a month on Facebook and the company clearly sees that as just the start.

Since the Internet began, giants like Microsoft, Apple, and Google have competed to become synonymous with cyberspace itself.

Internet expert John Battelle expressed the ultimate goal succinctly in recent comments made to "Wired," a leading trade journal.

"All of these companies are competing to become the operating systems of our lives," he said. "They want to be the place where we engage and store all of our data, and use it to do just about anything."

Now, it's Facebook's time to try.