Why TIME Got It Right

In a controversial move, TIME magazine declared Mark Zuckerberg its Person of the Year. Only TIME magazine can do something controversial by avoiding controversy. I'm speaking, of course, of the more obvious pick for Person of the Year, Julian Assange. With the WikiLeaks dump still fresh and flowing, there is certainly an argument to make that Assange had more effect on the world than Zuckerberg. But I think that Time magazine got this one right.

First, I have to show respect for TIME magazine's process in choosing Person of the Year. It isn't supposed to be the nicest person, or the most popular, or the greatest hero the world has seen. TIME's PoY is supposed to be the person who has had the greatest effect on the rest of the world.

In this way, Assange would still be a fine choice for TIME's consideration. In my original SlashGear column on the WikiLeaks dump, I was equivocal about how I felt about Assange and his actions. I'm still highly critical of whoever stole the information in the first place and passed it along to WikiLeaks, but I've come around on whether or not WikiLeaks did the right thing in posting the material they obtained.

I agree with Michael Moore on this one. The WikiLeaks dump is going to cause problems. It may even put lives at risk. But ultimately, the American people own the information at hand, just as the American people are in command of our government. If the government is trying to keep information secret so that it can deceive the American people, then that information needs to be revealed.

If this were simply about backroom diplomacy and allowing our tacit allies to maintain their tenuous control over a population that doesn't understand or appreciate the best that America has to offer, I would be less inclined to agree that Assange and WikiLeaks deserves our protection, much less our appreciation. But as Moore rightly points out, the government needs to be held accountable, especially if it is going to lie to the American people to drive our military, our citizen soldiers, into war. I agree with Moore that the next time a U.S. administration considers obscuring facts and hiding the truth from the American public, WikiLeaks will certainly come to mind. In my opinion, that will save far more lives than have been put in danger by the release of diplomatic cables in the current WikiLeaks dump.

But I still don't think Assange should be the person of the year, at least not this year. The WikiLeaks dump occurred late in the year, and its full effects have not yet been felt. I hope that plenty of good comes from the disinfecting light WikiLeaks shines on our government. Even more, I hope that WikiLeaks will turn that light on banks and major corporations, who could be deceiving us even more than the government ever imagined. At the moment, though, it is still hard to gauge the effect that the WikiLeaks dump will have.

I think Julian Assange should be considered a front-runner for Person of the Year in 2011. Once we've had a chance to watch the butterfly effect from the released documents become a full-blown hurricane in Washington, D.C. and abroad, then I think we will be able to determine whether Assange deserves the title that TIME bestows.

This is similar to when the Nobel Committee awarded Barack Obama the Nobel Peace Prize. Of course the prize was not for anything the president had accomplished thus far. The man himself even questioned whether he was deserving of the award. Instead, it was a vote of faith and confidence in the potential that the new American president had to reverse the warrior path down which America had turned under the previous administration. Except now, a year later, we have to look back on that award and wonder if it actually worked, and if there was ever hope that it would in our real political world.

As a quick aside, I wouldn't discount other mitigating factors in Obama's peace prize award. Remembering that the award is given in Norway, one of Obama's earliest successes in global politics was his reboot of relations with Russia. With Scandinavian countries more attuned than the rest of the world to the dangers of a cornered and aggressive Russian state, simply cooling the fires of the U.S. – Russian relationship, which had grown incendiary at best, may have been cause enough for the Nobel committee to reward our new president, and to urge him onward in drive for renewed stability.

In any case, I believe that TIME magazine was correct in choosing Mark Zuckerberg as the Person of the Year for 2010. Why? Take a look at this chart. That's why. What you see is a graph of a about ten million pairs of social connections on Facebook, plotted geographically. This was created by an intern at Facebook. This is the effect that Facebook is having on the world.

Facebook is connecting us. The world is a smaller place because of Facebook. It is a better place too, I think. But the map also reveals some fascinating details in what is absent. Of course, there are areas where Facebook is not popular. Facebook does not have a hold on China or Russia like it does on the rest of the globe, and those massive geographic areas are mostly missing. But I think that the social networks that are popular in those areas will eventually connect themselves to the rest of the world. The cultures will meet and collide.

This is the year that social networking hit its tipping point, as Malcolm Gladwell might say. That is not a way of favoring one network over another. I'm not proselytizing Facebook over other social networks. But I do believe that we're seeing the idea of social networking catch on. And within the social graph, here represented globally, we see the world growing smaller.

So, can Mark Zuckerberg claim all of the credit for this? Of course not, but I do like Zuckerberg as the emblematic choice to represent social networking in TIME's Person of the Year blitz. If Assange would have been an interesting choice because of his philosophy of openness and his abhorrence of secrecy, Zuckerberg might be an even better choice. After all, Assange wants to reveal our classified secrets, expose our spies, and also reveal the evil that the government has been hiding. Zuckerberg wants us all to share pictures. Zuckerberg wants us to tell each other what we're up to. Recommend songs and favorite sites. Share stories and links.

In the end, I think both are admirable goals, but when I look back on 2010 in the distant future, I would rather say that we got behind a college guy who wanted us all to meet people and share our personal stories. Let the government quake in its boots, and let the citizens keep a close eye on the secrets that our elected politicians keep. The ultimate end will be a smaller world, and more sharing. Once we have disinfected our diseased culture with light, what we'll really want to do is share a laugh, tag a friend in a picture, and hit that "Like" button one more time.