Why we like to watch Facebook struggle

May 25, 2012, 5:27 PM UTC

FORTUNE – We all love a rags-to-riches story, but a relative-comfort-to-exorbitant wealth story is less enticing. That has been Facebook’s story, which, until this point, has been all about its founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg: A smart kid with a good idea becomes a billionaire. What’s more, he becomes a billionaire, we have all realized, off of us (or at least our data).

And like cable companies, Facebook (FB) has competitors, but none that match its reach, which leaves users sometimes feeling a sense of powerlessness. Perhaps that is why, in the whirlwind of its anticlimactic IPO, there has been a sort of glee in watching the company stumble.

The media, including this publication, has covered Facebook’s public offering to death. Indeed, over the past two weeks, Fortune.com devoted its homepage real estate to a whopping 24 stories on the company’s coming of age.

Facebook’s recent fumbles have drawn so much attention partly because of the sheer size of its IPO, but also because of the enormity of its brand. The social network is recognizable in a way that many companies would kill for: everyone knows what it is, even people who don’t use it. Some of the people who use it, especially teenagers and pre-teens, see it as critical to their quality of life.

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Yet Facebook users are also quick to rail against the company for changes that tweak the experience or threaten privacy. And now, the social network is confronting a hurdle on the finance side – its stock opened flat on its first day of trading (and, at the time of publication, is down by over 13% since its IPO) and it must cope with shareholder anger, coming in hot by way of lawsuits. We all use Facebook, but can the company get us to like it again?

Pitfalls of a celebrity CEO

Part of Facebook’s branding problem has to do with Mark Zuckerberg, with his boyish face, brilliant brain, and billions of dollars. The business world seems to view the founder with a combination of jealousy and awe, fueled perhaps by the portrayal of the company’s origins in the movie The Social Network, which glorified a tale of dumb luck, cutthroat cunning, and fast fame. You want to hate that lifestyle, but you can’t help but want it for yourself.

When someone like Zuckerberg succeeds so quickly and with such a huge monetary payoff, we all wait for him to trip, says Michael Dunn, senior brand strategist at California-based consulting firm DUNN. “An upstart like Facebook has the same problem that the Kardashians have: it’s easy to us as a culture to knock people off that pedestal, especially when they got up on the pedestal very rapidly.”

Yet other titanic tech companies have managed to skirt this problem. “I don’t see the same venom against Google (GOOG) that you see against Facebook,” says Denis Riney, a senior partner at consulting firm Brandlogic. Of course, it helps that, over time, Google stock has paid off for shareholders. Granted, Google insisted from the get-go that it wasn’t evil. And though it had similar smart-guys-with-a-startup-idea roots, it never became the “Larry Page and Sergey Brin story” in quite the same way that Mark Zuckerberg’s rise overshadowed that of Facebook.

Without question, Apple’s (AAPL) story became entwined with its CEO. But the company made something that consumers loved so much that many separated whatever was off-putting about Steve Jobs’ personality from his personification of the company. “Apple kind of got it right because it had a megalomaniac at the helm,” says Dunn. “I really respect what he did. He kept everybody focused on the vision. But if you’ve ever been in the room with him, he was a real prick.”

Sending a different kind of Facebook message

Zuckerberg doesn’t seem to have that problem, Dunn says, and Facebook has time to sharpen what appears to be a solid message. “I’m proud that he didn’t sell Facebook off a lot sooner for a lot more money,” Dunn says, “It’s obvious that he cares.”

Internally, Facebook seems to be running a tight ship. They are good about hiring like-minded people, and it looks like its management supports the company’s stated goal of connecting the world.

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All of that may be true, but Facebook’s IPO problems have recently elicited more schadenfreude than support, perhaps because its story has been so money-centric. “It kind of got co-opted real quick by people whose incentives were to get the biggest IPO price out,” says Dunn, and that is normal. It is the CEO’s job to direct his attention to an IPO, which is a cold cash kind of event. “It’s not Zuckerberg’s fault. I mean, my God, look at what the kid built, he’s my hero.” But someone should have been helping the young CEO soften the financial narrative so that Facebook users don’t feel like dollar signs, Dunn argues.

That sentiment makes users more willing to jump on the Facebook-bashing bandwagon, which could be cause for concern. To address it, Facebook must change the way it communicates with the public.

This could play out in a couple of ways. In one scenario, Riney says, people will still sign on to Facebook and shake their fists at the company. Microsoft (MSFT) had a similar problem back in the day. “Everybody hated DOS, everybody hated Windows, everybody hated the hairball that made your computer crash,” he says. And people had a similar relationship with Bill Gates, a CEO that was both admired and distrusted. Yet somehow, he says, “They worked through all of that.”

For Facebook to solve the same problem, it will need to flip the story from Zuckerberg to the social network’s strengths.“This is not about publishing a bunch of happy stories about Zuckerberg. I suspect they will use the medium to start to weave good stories about the company,” says Riney.

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That will take time, Dunn says, because Facebook doesn’t need a traditional ad campaign, given that its brand awareness is through the roof. The company needs a major communications shift, one that will refocus everyone’s attention away from its wunderkind CEO and towards making people feel good about logging on. Facebook did not immediately respond to a request for comment for this story.

There’s plenty of material to do that, Dunn says. “What about someone who fell in love with someone they met on Facebook, or some grandmother who got to see a video of her grandchild? They’re not telling those stories, and they don’t even have a platform for that to happen.”

Should Facebook build one, the company has captured a generation of users who would gladly lap up a cohesive, positive message. In terms of the age of its users,“Facebook’s branding challenges are north of 30, certainly not south of 25,” says Allen Adamson, the managing director for Landor and Associates’ New York branch. His 13-year-old son, he says, begged Adamson to buy him one share of Facebook when it went public. “For him, it’s his brand. For teens, finding out what the cool kids are doing is mission critical.”

Now, after the IPO smoke clears, it’s up to Zuckerberg and Co. to keep kids like that feeling that way.