Zuckerberg: Person of the Year?

Although Time magazine readers recently chose WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange as “Person of the Year,” Time editors preferred to feature a far less controversial figure on the cover of the magazine. They decided to select Mark Zuckerberg, founder and CEO of Facebook and the youngest choice for the honor since Charles Lindberg in 1927. While both Assange and Zuckerberg are founders of tech empires that have transformed today’s social landscape, the difference between the two is clear. In short, Assange’s innovation has targeted government secrecy while Facebook has changed our personal lives.

It is important to note, however, that Facebook is nothing new; it has been around for years now. It is undoubtedly one of the better social networking tools that exist — if not the best — but there is nothing it accomplished in 2010 that it did not already accomplish in 2009. In the swirling pace of the tech world, Facebook is old news. Beyond giving props to Zuckerberg for “changing how we live our lives,” Time editors probably felt that Zuckerberg deserved the title because of his rapid ascent as one of the world’s youngest billionaires, along with the expansion of his public persona due to the acclaimed recent film, “The Social Network.”

Before 2010, Zuckerberg was generally known to the world as a mystifying Silicon Valley rising star, familiar mainly to those in tech circles. Even though many people may have had Facebook profiles then, they might not have been as familiar with Zuckerberg himself. This year, between an appearance on the “The Oprah Winfrey Show” and serving as the center of a critically acclaimed film, Zuckerberg has been pushed into the media spotlight.

Zuckerberg was perhaps impelled to expand his public image because others were doing it for him. David Fincher and Aaron Sorkin’s film on the creation of Facebook (“The Social Network”) has supplied a narrative that in some ways is unkind to Zuckerberg and Facebook, since the primary source for the film was Eduardo Saverin, Zuckerberg’s best friend who ends up suing him. In real life, Saverin is less of a friend to Zuckerberg than portrayed in the movie and more of a business partner. But with “The Social Network” being a Hollywood movie, the narrative arc of a betrayed best friend is a juicy story to sell.

Zuckerberg also seems to be presented as an outsider in the film. Insecure is not a word anyone would use to describe Zuckerberg. Friendless he is not. In addition, Fincher and Sorkin portray Zuckerberg’s motivation to build Facebook as a way to get girls. Zuckerberg humbly shot down this assertion in a recent television interview. Zuckerberg is admittedly driven towards creating and dominating a new kind of Internet based on our identities and relationships to “make the world more open and connected.” In other words, Zuckerberg sees Facebook as a universal identity system that may challenge Google and e-mail as the underlying connecting social fabric of the Internet. 2010 undoubtedly marks an incredible year for Zuckerberg and Facebook, which now boasts more than 500 million users worldwide and a market value in the billions.

Zuckerberg also countered the release of “The Social Network” with a $100 million donation over five years to schools in New Jersery. He appeared on “The Oprah Winfrey Show” to announce the donation. He also has recently joined Giving Pledge, an effort led by Microsoft founder Bill Gates and investor Warren Buffet to commit the country’s wealthiest people to step up their charitable donations.

Zuckerberg is still a mystery to many despite his openness this year; to some, he is an inspiration. To be 26 years old, a billionaire and the CEO of Facebook — well, don’t you and I both wish we were him?

Kevin Phan is a fourth-year biological sciences major. He can be reached at phankt@uci.edu.