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But Facebook is one a rare companies whose IPO transcends Wall Street’s money lust. It is a cultural touchstone for the way technology reshapes our lives. Since its start as a scrappy network for college students, Facebook has come to define social networking by getting people around the world to share everything from photos of their pets to their deepest thoughts.

It has done so while becoming one of the few profitable Internet companies to go public recently. It had net income of $205 million in the first three months of 2012, on revenue of $1.06 billion. In all of 2011, it earned $1 billion, up from $606 million a year earlier. That’s a far cry from 2007, when it posted a net loss of $138 million and revenue of $153 million. The company makes most of its money from advertising. It also takes a cut from the money people spend on virtual items in Facebook games such as “FarmVille.”

Facebook’s public debut marks a new milestone in the history of the Internet. In 1995, Netscape Communications’ IPO gave people their first chance to invest in a company whose graphical Web browser made the Internet more engaging and easier to navigate. Its hotly anticipated IPO lit the fuse that ignited the dot-com boom. That explosion of entrepreneurial activity and investment culminated five years later in a devastating bust that obliterated the notion that the Internet had hatched a “new economy”.

It took Google’s IPO in 2004 to prove that an Internet company with a disruptive idea could be profitable. In the process, the Internet search leader is forcing other industries to adapt to a new order where people have come to expect to be able to find just about anything they want by entering a few words into a box on any device with an Internet connection.

Facebook’s IPO heralds a new phase of the Internet’s evolution. This social era makes connections among people as important as Google’s massive index of Web links. Still, the IPO will raise new pressures for Facebook to generate more revenue, perhaps by digging further into the trove of revealing information that people share on the network to sell even more targeted ads.

The IPO almost certainly will enrich other up-and-coming entrepreneurs as Zuckerberg uses the company’s cash and stock to buy other startups in an effort to being in other talented engineers and promising technology. That’s what has been doing for years. Since it went public in 2004, Google has spent $10.2 billion buying nearly 200 other companies. Those figures don’t include Google’s still-pending $12.5 billion acquisition of cellphone maker Motorola Mobility Holdings Inc., which is still awaiting regulatory approval in China.

Zuckerberg’s biggest deal so far came when he agreed to buy Instagram, a maker of a popular mobile app for photos, for $1 billion. Because most of the deal is being paid for in stock, Instagram is already getting richer. Based on the $38 price for Facebook’s stock, Instagram is in line to receive nearly $1.2 billion.

Though Zuckerberg rang the Nasdaq opening bell from California, people outside the stock market in Times Square snapped photos of a big blue Facebook sign that lit up the building. Some of them used their smart phones to check in to the Nasdaq on Facebook. Frederick Nolde, who was visiting from Richmond, Va., said he bought 100 shares through the online brokerage eTrade.

He thinks the company is worth $100 billion. “I think Google is a good comparison and it’s worth $200 to 300 billion. The real question is how they do in mobile. If they can figure that out they’ll do well.”

In Menlo Park, some mourned the one that got away. Venture capitalist Mark Siegel visited Facebook’s headquarters to ponder. Like many of his fellow tech startup investors with offices a short drive from Facebook on Silicon Valley’s famed Sand Hill Road, Siegel said he had chances to back Facebook early on but didn’t.

He said at the time, when competing social networks like Friendster and MySpace still had clout, it wasn’t clear that Facebook would come out on top.

“In hindsight, any price would have been a good price to pay,” said Siegel, a managing director at Menlo Ventures.

There’s still time. Bruno del Ama, the CEO of asset management firm Global X Funds, is waiting until Thursday, to get in on Facebook.

“On the first day you see a tremendous amount of volatility,” he said. In three days, short-sellers will be able to sell the stock, he added, so by day five, investors should see more stability. Global X has a fund focused on social media stocks, and del Ama expects “significant growth” in the sector in the coming decade. Facebook, right now, is the crown jewel of the space. And it’s likely here to stay, by virtue of its position.

“Once companies have built a network, it’s really difficult to displace them,” del Ama said, adding that while massive companies such as Google are trying to compete with Facebook _ and may have better technology _ “we care about where our friends are.”

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