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Yes, Zuckerberg deserves to be Person of the Year

An argument in favor of Time magazine's choice of the young CEO as its most important individual in 2011--rather than the popular-vote pick, Julian Assange.

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg on stage during his keynote at the F8 developers conference in April in San Francisco.
James Martin/CNET

commentary He's only 26, he's been at the helm of his company for less than a decade, and one of the most famous uses for the technology he's built is that it facilitates tens of millions of people to start virtual farms with cartoon cows. Yet Mark Zuckerberg, the founder of Facebook, is Time magazine's 2010 Person of the Year--and it's a title he deserves.

The Web, of course, is sniping at this choice as they often will with sweeping, editorially arbitrary decisions of what's important and what isn't. Some prominent members of the media promptly criticized Time for settling on the relatively feel-good choice of Zuckerberg rather than a figure who presents a real threat or controversy. The privacy concerns that Facebook presents are serious, thought-provoking issues worth addressing, but for the most part they have not veered into matters of national security. Facebook has had many a brush with global politics as a grassroots organization tool for a number of activist groups across the world and a crucial campaign vehicle for candidates like Barack Obama, but the argument could be made that it's the broader Internet itself, not specifically Facebook, that catalyzes this.

Many critics of Time's Person of the Year choice pointed out the fact that a popular-opinion poll for the same distinction gave the title to the contentious Julian Assange, founder of information dissemination site WikiLeaks--a hero to some and an alleged terrorist to others. Assange, without a doubt, has shaken up relationships between countries, angered sovereign leaders, and stirred international dialogues and debates about free speech, transparency, and security.

Some surmised that Time has grown soft--once unafraid to name Adolf Hitler or Josef Stalin as Person of the Year, that the storied newsweekly no longer has the chutzpah to select someone who evokes too much unease, discomfort, or fear. They pointed to the fact that in 2001, with the September 11 terror attacks fresh and raw in the global imagination, Time chose New York City mayor Rudolph Giuliani, a first-responder among politicians in the wake of the attacks, as Person of the Year rather than terrorist mastermind Osama bin Laden. That's a legitimate claim.

But in this case, Time's pick is the right one. For one, Assange did not become a household name until the final three months of the year. But more importantly, the people flipping through the pages of an issue of Time or pressing the page-turn buttons on its Web site may never feel the direct effects of his action. The saga of the recently-captured Julian Assange and his irreverent, almost nihilistic treatment of government secrets is the stuff of a James Bond film or a Stieg Larsson novel. It could forever alter international relations, or it could ultimately become a geopolitical flash in the pan.

In contrast, Facebook, which has said time and again that the onscreen portrayal of Mark Zuckerberg in the movie "The Social Network" is entirely fanciful and that building world-changing technologies used by hundreds of millions of people across the planet is just not that sexy in theory, has bit by bit worked its way into every aspect of ordinary life. It was in 2010 that this reached new heights. Zuckerberg himself leads a no-frills lifestyle and has gone from openly shying away from media exposure to picking and choosing relatively simple, uncontroversial appearances.

It's easy to mistake austerity for irrelevance. It's also easy to take something for granted when it's so commonplace that it's become ordinary, as Facebook has. Of course you have a Facebook account: "everyone" does. What Mark Zuckerberg has created is so potent and affecting, so much a part of our lives that perhaps we no longer realize its importance and how much it's altered the ways in which we communicate and connect. And that's why, with apologies to the elected officials and jet-setting renegades who were relegated to "runners up," the 26-year-old CEO deserves the Person of the Year title.