Facebook and Us

This week I graduated from NYU, but at the same time, another graduation will take place: Facebook will "graduate" to the NASDAQ with its IPO valuing the company at close to $100 billion. Although Facebook was founded by one of the most famous college dropouts of our times, there is no company more closely associated with the life experiences of my fellow students and my entire generation: the millennials.

Facebook was our little secret when we were in high school and then our most basic way of communicating with our friends during our college years. Now it is the world's communications network, encompassing almost a billion people. Arguably, no single company has ever been so closely bound up with a generation in the way that Facebook is with the millennials.

In 2004, few people outside of the Ivy League had heard of Facebook. Similarly, few people, except those who listened attentively to the Democratic Convention that nominated John Kerry, had ever heard of Barack Obama. Almost no one imagined the kind of economic and financial crisis that lay ahead. By 2008, however, approximately two-thirds of all American millennials were using Facebook. Two-thirds of millennials voted in the 2008 election. Two-thirds of those millennials who voted cast their ballots for the first African American President. In fact, millennials were a decisive factor in electing Barack Obama in 2008. Today, millennials remain the age group most supportive of Obama. Today, more than 80 percent of millennials use Facebook. In a society often characterized by divisions and bitter partisanship, millennials are connected by shared experiences and beliefs.

Millennials have also evolved a shared worldview that I call "pragmatic idealism." While seeking broad-based, idealistic social change, we understand we must have a plan in order to achieve that change. That plan inevitably involves working inside and outside existing institutions from business to politics, as well as creating our own institutions, often at the same time. This worldview, a product of the experiences of our formative years, gives us unique potential and power to respond to the complex challenges in our world.

Pragmatic idealism drove Mark Zuckerberg as he built Facebook. He wanted to build a company that would fulfill his often expressed vision of "making the world a more open place." He resisted every opportunity to sell or to alter his strategy in ways that would have made the company more commercial too soon. Yet through savvy technical and business skills, Facebook has pragmatically navigated major challenges to succeed at a level unimaginable just a few years ago. Through major turning points and pivots over issues such as privacy and rules to govern the Facebook community, the company learned to listen and adapt, much like our generation has had to do in the wake of the economic and political crises.

The success of Facebook is directly attributable to the culture of the millennial generation. It is the first company of its size built by millennials and run by millennials. It was originally created for millennials, although today it is widely used and by all demographics -- with adult professionals and seniors among its fastest growing segments.

Facebook's story has inspired a culture of entrepreneurship among millennials. While the success of Bill Gates and Steve Jobs caused more than a few young people to start new companies in the last generation, the Zuckerberg story, plus the virality of social media, has affected many more young people and triggered the greatest wave of entrepreneurship in decades. Today, the idea of young people starting their own businesses and organizations is not only socially acceptable, it is encouraged.

Facebook, along with Twitter and other social media, has not only been an enormous success story as a business, it has been a platform for empowerment -- of people, organizations, companies, and ideas. This was most dramatically seen in the extraordinary role Facebook played in empowering millennials in the Arab Spring. Facebook has been similarly crucial to movements big and small, community-based, national, and global.

Our generation has been maligned by others as slackers, narcissistic, and fixated on celebrity and consumerism. Facebook has been criticized for its excessive advertising, reckless attitude toward personal data and privacy, and for contributing to a loss of face-to-face communication. There are, of course, elements of truth to all these allegations. But Facebook's future is similar to the millennials: we are developing new ideas and solutions -- new technological and social software -- to address the unique and unprecedented challenges of our world that lie ahead. Facebook and the millennials grew up together. Now as Facebook goes out into the world, our generation does the same.

David D. Burstein is a graduate of New York University's Gallatin School of Individualized Study. His book, Fast Future: How the Millennial Generation is Shaping Our World, will be published by Beacon Press in February.