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In this image provided by Facebook, Facebook founder, Chairman and CEO Mark Zuckerberg, center, applauds at the opening bell of the Nasdaq stock market, Friday, May 18, 2012, from Facebook headquarters in Menlo Park, Calif. (Zef Nikolla/Zef Nikolla/Facebook/AP)
In this image provided by Facebook, Facebook founder, Chairman and CEO Mark Zuckerberg, center, applauds at the opening bell of the Nasdaq stock market, Friday, May 18, 2012, from Facebook headquarters in Menlo Park, Calif. (Zef Nikolla/Zef Nikolla/Facebook/AP)

Facebook's flat debut puts social media firms under microscope Add to ...

The largest tech IPO in history couldn’t live up to the hype.

Shares of Facebook closed their first day of trading almost unchanged, ending months of excitement over the initial public offering of the world’s biggest social network. Instead of soaring from the IPO price of $38 (U.S.) a share as many observers had expected, Facebook’s stock traded a few dollars higher during the day before falling back to close at $38.23, up less than 1 per cent.

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The flat debut turned into a watershed moment as investors took a sober second look at the earnings potential for Facebook and social media as a whole. The sector, in recent years a Wild West of hype and bloated valuations, is now subject to the same investor and analyst scrutiny as any other major industry.

Indeed, a massive buying spree by the banks underwriting the IPO is likely the only thing that kept Facebook shares from ending the day lower than they started. And it only took a few hours for the social Web’s biggest success story to earn its first “sell” rating.

“There’s going to be a lot of scrutiny,” said Adrian Mastracci, portfolio manager at Vancouver-based KCM Wealth Management, who avoided Facebook shares on Friday. “The share price had a lot of future potential already baked into it. It’s going to take a lot of profit to sustain this valuation – any hint of slippage, and this thing is going to take a dip.”

Zynga Inc., which builds games that run on Facebook, dropped as much as 13 per cent, flirting with an all-time low on Friday. At one point, Zynga shares dropped so quickly that they triggered a temporary halt in trading. LinkedIn Corp., the professional networking website, also dropped 5.6 per cent, while daily deals site Groupon Inc. lost about 6.7 per cent.

“What this illustrates is probably a greater-than-expected level of doubt among the investor community that Facebook has what it takes to sustain the hype,” said independent tech analyst Carmi Levy. “Much of the broader business community is still not convinced that social media is a viable advertising medium.”

Whereas Facebook’s defining metric over the years has been its user base – more than 900 million people use the site at least once a month – analysts quickly focused on other measures of the newly public company, such as its triple-digit price-to-earnings ratio and its reliance on a very limited set of revenue sources.

“We are wary of the disconnect between revenue growth and operating/capital expense growth expectations,” wrote Brian Wieser, an analyst with Pivotal Research Group who gave the company its first “sell” rating and a price target of $30. “The market is pricing Facebook as a less risky asset than Google, which we believe is simply not the case.”

Others were more optimistic. Queen’s School of Business professor John Pliniussen said interest in Facebook shares should remain high in large part because the company’s user base is so vast and loyal.

“This is an application that’s ingrained in the life of almost a billion people,” he said. “Many people are tethered, they’re never not on Facebook.”

By the end of the trading day, Facebook share volume had hit roughly 567 million, making it the most highly traded opening day IPO in U.S. history.

Facebook ended the week as the world’s newest $100-billion company. With the IPO frenzy now over, the social network will likely face increasing pressure to show investors how it plans to justify that valuation – specifically, its plans for establishing a foothold in markets such as China, and for making money off users who access the site via tablets and smartphones.

“Internally, Facebook is in for a sea change,” Mr. Levy said. “The reality is that the company has been very insular to date. It has held its cards very close to its chest.”

Despite an underwhelming opening day on the market, there were many happy employees celebrating at Facebook’s headquarters in Menlo Park, Calif. – including the man who founded the company in his dorm room eight years ago.

But even as Facebook’s IPO ballooned his net worth to nearly $20-billion, Mark Zuckerberg seemed ill at ease in his new role as head of a publicly traded company.

“Here’s the thing, our mission isn’t to be a public company,” he told Facebook employees in a speech on Friday. “Our mission is to make the world more open and connected.”

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