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Why Zuckerberg as Time's "Person of the Year" is part thrilling, part scary

Posted by Rob Anderson  December 15, 2010 09:29 AM

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Time magazine's decision to name Facebook co-founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg its "Person of the Year" is more about social media in general than it is about Zuckerberg himself. Just read the explanation for why the magazine chose Zuckerberg in the first place. In it, Time Managing Editor Richard Stengel clearly explains how technology has changed, and is changing, our world — but not what Zuckerberg has personally done to usher along those changes. Or, to put it another way, he doesn't make the case for why we should view Zuckerberg's contributions to our technological revolution as more important than those of Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, the founders of Google, the creators of YouTube, the innovators at Twitter, or the thousands of people working to create revolutionary software, hardware, and platforms for organizing, communicating, and connecting online. Not to mention the people who use all of these things in revolutionary ways.

That doesn't mean the magazine was wrong to pick Zuckerberg. Instead of going general and once again picking "You," the people who use social media, as its "Person of the Year" as it did in 2006, it chose to pick a leader of the social media revolution, a personification of the changes brought about by technology that we all feel in our daily lives. Zuckerberg is, as Stengel put it, our "T-shirt-wearing head of state."

As a member of Zuckerberg's generation, there's something thrilling about seeing him on the cover of Time's "Person of the Year" issue. It's the first time I've seen someone my age being recognized for the changes he — and, more generally, our generation — is ushering in. But at the same time, I'm uneasy with it.

To understand why, you have to take the time to read Jose Antonio Vargas' fascinating profile of Zuckerberg, published in the New Yorker. The one thing I took away from it was that Zuckerberg clearly hasn't thought through the implications of the tools he has created — or that he has, but only understands or focuses on the positive things. Vargas exposed this brilliantly in one passage of his article:

Zuckerberg’s critics argue that his interpretation and understanding of transparency and openness are simplistic, if not downright naïve. “If you are twenty-six years old, you’ve been a golden child, you’ve been wealthy all your life, you’ve been privileged all your life, you’ve been successful your whole life, of course you don’t think anybody would ever have anything to hide,” Anil Dash, a blogging pioneer who was the first employee of Six Apart, the maker of Movable Type, said. Danah Boyd, a social-media researcher at Microsoft Research New England, added, “This is a philosophical battle. Zuckerberg thinks the world would be a better place—and more honest, you’ll hear that word over and over again—if people were more open and transparent. My feeling is, it’s not worth the cost for a lot of individuals.”

Zuckerberg and I talked about this the first time I signed up for Facebook, in September, 2006. Users are asked to check a box to indicate whether they’re interested in men or in women. I told Zuckerberg that it took me a few hours to decide which box to check. If I said on Facebook that I’m a man interested in men, all my Facebook friends, including relatives, co-workers, sources—some of whom might not approve of homosexuality—would see it.

“So what did you end up doing?” Zuckerberg asked.

“I put men.”

“That’s interesting. No one has done a study on this, as far as I can tell, but I think Facebook might be the first place where a large number of people have come out,” he said. “We didn’t create that—society was generally ready for that.” He went on, “I think this is just part of the general trend that we talked about, about society being more open, and I think that’s good.”

Then I told Zuckerberg that, two weeks later, I removed the check, and left the boxes blank. A couple of relatives who were Facebook friends had asked about my sexuality and, at that time, at least, I didn’t want all my professional sources to know that I am gay.

“Is it still out?” Zuckerberg asked.

“Yeah, it’s still out.”

He responded with a flat “Huh,” dropped his shoulders, and stared at me, looking genuinely concerned and somewhat puzzled. Facebook had asked me to publish a personal detail that I was not ready to share.

In Zuckerberg's world, there's nothing to be lost from more openness and less privacy. But as this passage shows, for a lot of other people, like Vargas, there is. It's scary that our "head of state" may not realize that. If anything, Time's decision recognizes that our world is cracking open, and that Zuckerberg, more than anyone else, will determine the path that fault line takes. But it's important to remember, as the magazine explains, the selection is not an honor, it simply "is a recognition of the power of individuals to shape our world." To be sure, Zuckerberg has the power to change our world. But most of us haven't decided yet if that's a good or bad thing.

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ABOUT THE ANGLE Online commentary and news analysis from the Boston Globe. The Angle is produced by Rob Anderson and Alan Wirzbicki. You can follow Rob on Twitter at @rcand.

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