New-Media Richcraft Invites Priceless Comparisons

By Frank Ahrens
Sunday, September 24, 2006

About a month ago, the two founders of Facebook came to The Washington Post, excited to tell me about a product they were planning to launch.

Facebook is the popular college-based social network Web site. Like MySpace, people can post profiles with pictures, blogs and so forth and let friends within their networks have access to the material. Unlike MySpace, it is something of a closed community, limited to college campuses, high schools, workplaces and geographic regions. Up until this meeting, it was an unblemished success, with more than 9 million members.

Mark Zuckerberg and Chris Hughes sat in one of our conference rooms and vividly described the site's hot new features. I admit it's a superficial weakness, but it was hard to look at the two of them -- Zuckerberg, in sandals and a T-shirt, the size of a 130-pound high school wrestler, and Hughes, as blond and wisp-like as a Prada model -- and not wonder if their combined ages added up to be less than mine.

Almost, but not quite. Both are 22.

Perhaps the result of a youthful misstep, one of the new features Zuckerberg and Hughes pitched at the meeting blew up in their faces the day after they launched it earlier this month, causing a brief user revolt.

It's hard to tell how much the contretemps harmed the value of the company to potential suitors, or even if it did. Earlier this year, when Viacom Inc. and others were testing the Facebook waters, the price tag was an eye-popping $2 billion.

Now, this past week, the Wall Street Journal reported that Yahoo Inc. is offering up to one beeeeellion dollars for Facebook, to wrap the network into the Web's most popular portal.

Did the user revolt and the fact that Facebook "really messed this one up," as Zuckerberg put it, slash the value of the company in half over the past several months? Probably not. Probably, Zuckerberg was in no mood to sell, or to sell to Viacom, and set an outlandish price. But now, Facebook seems serious about getting acquired.

Over the past couple of years, Old Media have been buying up white-hot social networking sites, hoping to capture a little of their mojo/fairy dust. Last summer, Rupert Murdoch's News Corp. bought MySpace. NBC-Universal bought iVillage. Viacom Inc. bought Neopets. And so on.

What's funny about this potential acquisition is that, compared with the two-year-old Facebook and its 22-year-old founders, Yahoo Inc. (founded in 1994) looks like the Old Media buyer.

Great ideas are age-agnostic, as Zuckerberg (and Google Inc.'s Sergey Brin and Larry Page) has shown. There is no minimum age for innovation, like the height requirement on a theme park ride. ("You must be this old to be a billionaire.") Brin and Page, both 33, are the youngest members of Forbes magazine's annual 400 richest Americans list, released last week. If the Yahoo sale goes through, they will look like graybeards compared with the Facebook fellas.

During our meeting, Zuckerberg kept repeating Facebook's mission: "to help people understand their world." He said it so much, I thought I was in a drinking game. Which, a couple of years ago, he would not have been able to play, legally. I'm not bitter. Honest.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company