Time magazine’s announcement of its “Person of the Year,” coming as it does in mid-December, inspires the beginning of the inevitable reflection about the previous 12 months. The choices since the designation began in 1927 — aviator Charles Lindbergh was the first — suggest the magazine considers impact and emblem. Both Adolf Hitler and Joseph Stalin — ruthless dictators, but indisputably players on the world stage who changed the course of history — were “winners.” But in later decades, Time seems to have changed its view, describing the designation as an honor. In 2001, Osama bin Laden arguably had more impact, yet Time’s Person of the Year was Rudolph Giuliani.
This year, some of the possible choices seemed like strong contenders. Wikileaks founder Julian Assange, Fox News commentator Glenn Beck, Afghan leader Hamid Karzai, the Chilean miners and the tea party were all in the mix. But in the end, Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg is Time’s Person of the Year for 2010.
The choice can be appreciated both because of Mr. Zuckerberg’s impact and the emblematic nature of his creation, the social network Facebook.
He heads an Internet startup, which, unlike the victims of the early dot.com boom, is not about selling familiar products in a new, “Gee whiz, isn’t this cool” way. Instead, its success comes in facilitating something people have always done — chat at the water cooler, coffee shop or bar about their jobs, vacations, sports, the news and family.
Facebook users are approaching 600 million, which would make it the third-largest nation in the world. Yet most users don’t care about that number, they care about the connections Facebook fosters. Earlier Web creations allowed someone sitting at home on a Saturday night to discuss politics, music or sports with an anonymous community scattered across the globe. Facebook has made it personal by taking the vast sea of the Internet and turning its social component into something like a personal address book.
If the Internet is a web — computer servers cross-linked across the world — Facebook is the human version of the web. In old-fashioned social networks, you tell your brother-in-law and your fishing buddy about the new boat you bought, but the two don’t necessarily know each other. The same is true on Facebook; many of your “friends” don’t know each other, but will see each other’s responses to the news about that boat.
Consider the advances in communication that have come in the last 20 years. E-mail was an incredibly fast way to send a letter; cell phones a way to chat while out of the house and away from work; smart phones and other devices allow messaging while on the move. Facebook put the new communication modes into a familiar context.
And beyond the personal, Facebook allows businesses and organizations to reach out to known groups. The Bangor Daily News, for example, has launched Facebook pages for its Editorial and OpEd, Outdoors, Midcoast, Aroostook County and other focused coverage areas.
In the age of Facebook, Twitter and Kindle, the method by which information is shared is secondary to the content being shared. This is how it should be.