Back in the old days, which is to say 2004, the planet was agog over the vast riches of a pair of puppies named Sergey Brin and Larry Page. The cofounders of Google, both Brin and Page turned 31 that year, but on the day Google went public, each was worth $3.9 billion.
Now here comes Mark Zuckerberg, who makes Brin and Page’s introduction into the billionaire boys’ club look modest by comparison. On that day in the not-so-distant future when Facebook goes public, Zuckerberg is expected to have a net worth of between $21 billion and $28 billion—more if investors greet the company with a healthy first-day bounce. (Shares of Google, for instance, popped 18 percent on their first day of trading.)
At $28 billion, Zuckerberg would rank as the fourth-richest person in the country, behind only Bill Gates (56 years old), Warren Buffett (81), and Larry Ellison, the 67-year-old cofounder of software giant Oracle.
Even if Facebook’s stock-market debut is modest, it would still place Zuckerberg on a list of the top 10 richest Americans. At $21 billion, he’d rank just behind Sheldon Adelson, the 78-year-old casino mogul who stands as Newt Gingrich’s top financial supporter, and the Koch brothers, deep-pocketed right-wingers who have helped fund the Tea Party. And Zuckerberg would rank ahead of the Google founders, who are worth around $17 billion apiece, and Amazon.com founder Jeff Bezos, worth $18 billion as of the most recent Forbes list ranking the world’s richest people.
What kind of billionaire would Zuckerberg be? That, of course, brings us into the realm of speculation. It’s a safe bet, however, that he won’t be a Bezos or an Ellison, each of whom has a reputation as billionaire skinflint more interested in pet projects than in philanthropy. Already in 2010, when his billions were largely theoretical (and his reputation suffered because of a certain popular feature film written by Aaron Sorkin), Zuckerberg made a $100 million commitment to improving the Newark, N.J., public schools.
My hunch is that Zuckerberg will be more like Gates. For years, Gates, despite his billions, disappointed the philanthropic world by giving away only the smallest sliver of his net worth. His claim: he was too busy running Microsoft to pay any attention to anything else. But then the Department of Justice charged Microsoft with abusing its monopoly powers, and Gates’s reputation, along with that of the company he had cofounded, suffered—and, lo and behold, Gates started opening up his wallet. Today, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation stands as the world’s largest, having given away $2.6 billion in 2010 alone.
That’s potentially good news for the globe’s charitable organizations. Like Gates, Zuckerberg has infinite wealth, and he seems monomaniacal in his desire to see Facebook beat back any and all rivals. But at the same time—with constant controversies over its privacy policies and resentments over the cavalier way Facebook treats the content we as users have contributed to the site—it seems Zuckerberg will have plenty of PR reasons to prove to the rest of us what a kindhearted and generous guy he truly is.