You know that question of who, dead or alive, you'd want to invite to a dinner party?
I know, I hate it too. It's hard enough to plan the right mix and menu for an actual gathering, and make sure you don't invite people with the kind of romantic, professional or dietary complications that lead to stony silences or a visit to the emergency room.
But this week, I got to wondering nonetheless: What would A.S. Abell and Mark Zuckerberg have to say to one another across such a time-traveling dinner table?
Zuckerberg, as more of you likely know, is the Facebook founder who just took his company public. As for Abell, you might say he had a public offering of his own 175 years ago, when he published the very first issue of The Baltimore Sun, selling each copy for all of one cent.
Now, 175 years is a long time. And The Sun and Facebook are vastly different beasts. And selling a newspaper to a reader, in print or online, is different from selling a company to investors.
But if Abell and Zuckerberg are linked in my head largely by a calendar coincidence, they also seem like bookends of a sort, spanning a time when the "media" came to mean something very different — and in much different markets.
Crazy big valuations of tech companies are, of course, nothing new, even if Facebook's $104 billion market value is quite the eye-popper for a concern that is a mere eight years old.
But that is the skewed and speeded-up world we live in today, where Facebook seems like it's already been around forever. Or at least long enough to be buying, as it did last month, a later-generation social media company, Instagram. Price tag: $1 billion.
That something so new could be worth so much is as dazzling as it is baffling; you have to wonder how Instagram, which allows people to share photos for free and without advertising, actually makes money.
But who knows? Maybe somewhere down the road, this will go down in history as one of the great bargains of all time. Or it could prove to be a folly along the lines of tulip mania, the original bubble market.
The point is, who knows whether something will prove to be the next Facebook, rather than the next MySpace? More and more these days, we're dealing with intangibles.
I'm fine with social media — you have to be; no one in any kind of media these days can afford to be anti-social. It's fun, it's a great way for news as well as nonsense to travel quickly and across all sorts of barriers. Mainstream media and social media are more symbiotic than competitive.
But it's also been heartening to see a conventional media outlet like The Sun withstand the test of time, or at least 175 years of it. Maybe that's just me being the ancienne that I am — and yes, I will date myself by admitting that I remember when "facebook" really referred to an actual book. As in that much paged-through volume filled with snapshots of your college freshman class.
So to someone like me, The Sun is tangible. You pay $1.50 at the newsstand (are there still newsstands?) or, you buy an online subscription, and you get the product that we make every day. It's a pretty simple, and transparent, transaction.
But when I watch something like Facebook go public as it did this past week, it seems unreal. The process deals with such huge sums, it's like play money. And it seems that Facebook is one thing to its users, and an entirely different thing to the market.
Its value on Wall Street isn't so much what Facebook produces — all those pixels floating across the Intertubes — but its customers. Or rather, its customers' information, what they like and dislike, who their friends are, where they go and what they link to online, all of which is valuable data to other companies and thus Wall Street.
That's not entirely new, of course, given that the reason companies advertise in The Sun is that they want to reach its readers, and their wallets.
But the market frenzy with a Facebook offering is entirely different. It's all about exceeding market expectations, not just meeting them. There was so much advance hype, for one thing, that you could almost predict the disappointment that would follow: And indeed, when Facebook shares opened at $38 and closed at only $38.23, everyone sighed at how boring that was.
But if Zuckerberg is lucky, 175 years from now, and from whatever cloud tech magnates go to in the afterlife, he'll look down and see Facebook still thriving. And we can hope, at the same time, Abell will be celebrating The Sun's 350th.