Facebook: A Prosocial or Antisocial Stock?

By Markets Fool.com

I recently realized that Facebook is one of my highest conviction stocks. It resides in the collection of companies I purchased in the Prosocial Portfolio, which seeks out companies that can do good in the world and do well financially. When I first purchased Facebook for the portfolio last May, some were puzzled that I'd decided to add it to the portfolio at all.

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A year later, I believe more than ever that Facebook has a lofty purpose that puts it a step above its social media brethren -- and makes it a better long-term stock idea. Founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg exhibits big-picture thinking, and it seems his passion for the business that drives many decisions goes far beyond simply "making a profit." Then again, some have been arguing that Facebook is gearing up to be quite antisocial in some of its activities in impoverished countries.

Going far beyond your news feed
Social media is a truly transformative area, delivering on the Internet's original promise of connecting people and bolstering knowledge, new ideas, and economic opportunity across the world.

Cat photos, food porn, and misattributed Mark Twain quotes aside, Facebook's got a much higher purpose embedded in its news feeds. It's pretty amazing to be able to connect with others, gain moral support, and share life's milestones, vacation photos, and other thoughts on a daily basis, free of charge. However, the underlying mission goes far beyond shareable moments, memes, or social gaming.

Consider a snip from Mark Zuckerberg's shareholder letter in Facebook's IPO prospectus:

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. We think it's important that everyone who invests in Facebook understands what this mission means to us.

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The social media giant could have simply gotten away with executing on this mission with immediate economics in mind, focusing only on developed countries and users who are lucky enough to already have access to the Internet, computers, mobile phones, and wallets full of spending power.

Image source: Facebook Investor Relations.

However, Zuckerberg's taking it further, sometimes investing in areas where there's not much money to be made in the near term. Consider his brainchild, Internet.org, which includes efforts by Facebook and a handful of other companies such as Samsung, Nokia, and Qualcomm. The initiative is described as bringing together technology leaders, non-profits, and local communities to provide mobile connectivity to the astounding two-thirds of the world's population -- 4 billion people -- who lack Internet access.

Internet.org effort has made free basic access available to more than 800 million people in nine countries; some of the latest countries added include Colombia, Guatemala, and Ghana.

Through the effort, Facebook is investing in the world's potential, most notably in the people who lack so much, not least of which is the technological connectivity that could improve their lots in life and help build more vibrant economies -- and potential consumers.

Although Facebook ostensibly can one day profit from Internet.org, there's no guarantee, and shareholders who are invested in Facebook for the long haul can and should realize that this "risk" could end up being a massive "reward," for them and for individuals across the world.

The kind of investors they want to have
Some of the greatest corporate leaders are the ones who hold their businesses to higher standards than simply nickel-and-diming profits to assuage investors with short-term mind-sets. They're not willing to sacrifice the underlying strength of the enterprises they feel passionate about -- or their big visions -- in order to juice quarter-by-quarter profits for impatient traders. Mark Zuckerberg appears to be gearing up to be one of those leaders.

He's got good company; take Apple's Tim Cook, who shows signs of being such a leader. When a shareholder questioned him about sustainability efforts and asked for a commitment to focus only on profitable initiatives, Cook responded: "When we work on making our devices accessible by the blind, I don't consider the bloody ROI [return on investment] ... If you want me to do things only for ROI reasons, you should get out of this stock."

Zuckerberg expressed similar sentiments recently. In Facebook's fourth-quarter conference call, an analyst asked why investors should care about Internet.org.

Zuckerberg replied that it matters to the kind of investors Facebook wants to have:

If we were only focused on making money, we might put all of our energy on just increasing ads to people in the U.S. and the other most developed countries, but that's not the only thing that we care about here ... We're here because our mission is to connect the world, and I just think it's really important that investors know that.

A dark side to Internet.org?
On the other hand, Facebook's facing some harsh criticism about Internet.org. Some critics question whether Facebook's moves to help connect the world will be a good thing at all for the world's poor.

Internet.org efforts in India have been overshadowed by the accusation that the service runs aground of net neutrality. Some Indian companies have backed out, and more than 1 million Indian citizens signed a petition asking the government to ban it.

Because Internet.org only offers a limited number of services users can connect to, The Electronic Frontier Foundation went so far as to say it could become a "ghetto for poor users."

Personally, I think the alternative -- no connectivity at all -- is actually a far worse reality for the world's poor. Here is Zuckerberg's own Facebook post defending the Internet.org initiative against critics. He also recently touted the fact that Internet.org has given 9 million people the opportunity to access the Internet for the very first time.

Good, healthy capitalism
Of course, Facebook investors hope that one day, initiatives like Internet.org -- and the as-yet-unmonetized but extremely popular messaging service WhatsApp, for that matter -- will translate into more and more users and future financial opportunity.

However, Zuckerberg also seems interested in the kind of "win-win" mentality that has helped build some of the best, most loved businesses out there, even if the effects don't all show up on the bottom line right away, or are masked within the intangible assets that make up rock-solid, beloved brands.

Critics should remember that businesses have a lot of power to do good in the world, and they can often move the needle with far more financial resources, efficiency, and breadth than individuals, governments, and non-profits. Sadly, given recent decades' emphasis on the short-term profit maximization philosophy prevalent in many corporations' strategies, it makes sense for many people to react with distrust, but it shouldn't be an automatic reaction.

I still believe Facebook is a net positive in the world, and Zuckerberg's big-picture thinking will provide profits and prosperity for many stakeholders. Of course, those stakeholders include the kinds of investors companies like Facebook want to have: true, long-haul shareholders who understand that a long-term, prosocial view is what good, healthy capitalism is all about.

Check back at Fool.com for more of Alyce Lomax's columns on environmental, social, and governance issues.

The article Facebook: A Prosocial or Antisocial Stock? originally appeared on Fool.com.

Alyce Lomax has no position in any stocks mentioned. The Motley Fool recommends Apple and Facebook. The Motley Fool owns shares of Apple, Facebook, and Qualcomm. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.