Facebook co-founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg may be the most successful 26 year-old technology entrepreneur in the world right now, but he sure isn’t making it look easy. His company finds itself being attacked for its position on user privacy, and the attacks have turned personal.

While Zuckerberg’s character has been called into question before, the increased scrutiny on Facebook seems to be producing a steady stream of facts that don’t show Zuckerberg in the best light.

While many are debating the merits of the ongoing media assault against Facebook and Zuckerberg are overblown, one thing is clear: the company and its wunderkind leader aren’t exactly comfortable. That’s somewhat understandable. Facebook has gone from global Google-like popularity to Microsoft-like disdain before the company has even gone public. A notable, if not dubious, feat.

What impact will this have on the company? That’s hard to say. As the company passes the 500m registered user mark, it’s obvious that Facebook isn’t going away tomorrow. But a more qualitative reading of what’s being said about Facebook and Zuckerberg (and what people are searching for) hints that the future isn’t exactly guaranteed either.

Facebook’s current predicament highlights a challenge that most businesses, entrepreneurs and professionals will face at some point: remaining likeable while also remaining successful.

Some might say, “Huh? I don’t need to be liked to make money.” But the reality is that being likeable is important. Why? Because likability helps foster something far more important than superficial popularity: trust. After all, how many individuals and companies do you like, but not trust? How many individuals and companies do you dislike, but trust? Probably very few, if any, on both counts.

Trust, of course, is one thing that helps grease the wheels of commerce. If your customers (or users) trust you, the odds are far higher that they’ll stick by you. If they don’t, they may not. That’s one reason why in just about every industry — from software to investment banking to oil production — companies often go to great lengths to put on a face that the public can at least tolerate. No matter how amoral or even ‘greedy‘ they might seem (or be), time and money are spent trying to maintain perceptions about what the company does and what it stands for. Even at the individual level, it’s no surprise that the best salespeople are typically those who are charismatic. The person you’d enjoy going to a sporting event or hanging out at a BBQ with is far more likely to sell you a $100,000 software license than the rude, antisocial chap who answers your calls as if you were the most hated in-law.

On the internet, likeability is particularly important. Word of mouth spreads fast, so if you’re a total jerk, word will get out. Switching costs are often relatively low, particularly when it comes to free consumer-oriented services. Furthermore, the prominence of personality-driven ventures (such as Digg, WordPress and Twitter to name but a few) demonstrate that people matter. Interesting or otherwise likeable people can help attract users and customers, and contribute to keeping them coming back for more.

From this perspective, there’s little reason not to be likeable. Or conversely, to try too hard to be unlikeable. Hopefully Facebook and Mark Zuckerberg will figure that out.

Photo credit: deneyterrio via Flickr.