Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Time friends Zuckerberg, Assange not so much

“There’s no such thing as bad publicity,” someone once said. In an age of nonstop publicity, that’s truer now than it ever was before. Mark Zuckerberg, the wunderkind master builder of Facebook, knows this firsthand.

The force behind the social networking ecosystem he launched with co-conspirators at Harvard back in the day of 2004, Zuckerberg has seen Facebook hailed to the skies, condemned for policies related to user privacy and advertiser access, and finally embraced — by no fewer than 500 million people — as the platform for a kind of counterlife, a village commons on algorithmic steroids, a place to share just about everything.

Facebook’s place in the world caught the attention of Hollywood, and now the film “The Social Network,” documenting Zuckerberg’s role in the rise of Facebook and the legal consequences that entailed, has been praised by top critics in Los Angeles, Toronto, Boston and New York as the best film of 2010.

No wonder, you think, that Time Magazine just announced its choice of Mark Elliott Zuckerberg as its 2010 Person of the Year. Someone with just the right buzz, the right velocity into the culture, the right Impact.

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Handicapping the Time Person of the Year has always been a favorite year-end media parlor game, and the magazine's editors have often surprised us. Who can forget the hue and cry after the announcement in 2006 when they voted You — the technologically savvy, gadget hungry everyone — the Person of the Year? Or in 1982, when the Time brain trust went outside our species altogether, making the computer the Machine of the Year?

Time's choice of Zuckerberg takes legitimate note of the impact that Facebook has had on our society and the way people interact in six short years. And there’s no escaping the fact that Time, whose most enduring readership tends to skew demographically older, made a choice that’s a shrewd bid to reach younger, more tech-savvy readers.

But drilling down a little, things may not be all they seem. If Time had chosen another master of viral outreach, of the ways in which a wildfire of information can change the world, Zuckerberg may well have gotten the consolation prize of Person of the Year first runner-up.

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As it turned out, that honor went to one Julian Paul Assange, the International Information Criminal and founder of Wikileaks, whose previous and current release of various declassified U.S. government cables and communications has revived a furious debate over secrecy and journalistic ethics in the Information Age. In July, Wikileaks released thousands of documents related to the U.S. war effort in Iraq and Afghanistan.

That was followed early this month with the first of more than 250,000 U.S. diplomatic cables on a wide range of topics — from Mexico’s brief consideration of martial law to stop the drug cartels to a personal assessment of Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi that’s been common knowledge for literally years.

Assange may well have been on a short list for Person of the Year honors for some time; Time essentially hinted at the power of Wikileaks back in January 2007, when the magazine anointed Wikileaks as something that “could become as important a journalistic tool as the Freedom of Information Act.”

But then it all went south. Even before this month’s Wikileaks power dump, Assange was accused of various sexual misdeeds with two associates. We can skip the more sordid details here (reportedly something to do with condom integrity). But the still-unresolved sex matter, and Assange’s current status (lodged in Britain’s Wandsworth Prison awaiting a ruling on extradition to Sweden to face the charges) made it, uh, an issue for Time to elevate him again, as Person of the Year.

Zuckerberg was — among other valid reasons compelling his selection — a less socially problematic, more palatable choice.

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In some ways, that’s a shame. It’s a fact that from the standpoint of global reach and impact, Wikileaks in 2010 has changed the wary minuet performed between journalists and government, and leveled the playing field between society and government — much the way Facebook changed the process of social interaction in the years since it was started in 2004. On that basis Assange would seem to answer fully Time’s requirement that the Person of the Year be the one that, for good or ill, “has done the most to influence the events of the year.”

Less a journalistic selection than one that looks to be motivated by pop culture and marketing, Time’s choice of Zuckerberg seems to buy into the idea of Person of the Year as winner of a popularity contest — and that’s a shame too.

Historically, the impact of the one crowned top Person hasn’t always been positive. Time made Adolf Hitler its Man of the Year in 1938; Joseph Stalin got that distinction twice, Richard Nixon was so named twice, and the Ayatollah Khomeini got the top spot in 1979. In those earlier eras, the magazine’s editors implicitly understood that some of the most important people of our time could also be the most reprehensible of our time.

That’s not to in any way call Assange reprehensible; the sex charges may have been one big misunderstanding. He’s innocent until proven guilty, too. But Time’s 2010 Person choice is less courageous than it might have been. It has the feel of being too calculated to accept without challenge, too enamored of the media world Zuckerberg and Facebook are reshaping — the same world Time inhabits as it fights to stay current in a 24/7/365 era.

But timing, as they say, is everything. The timing of this choice for Person of the Year right now, with two weeks left not just in the year but in the first ten full years of the 21st century, makes you wonder:

Who’d be Time’s choice for Person of the Decade?

Image credits: Zuckerberg cover: © 2010 Time Inc. Facebook logo: © 2010 Facebook. Julian Assange: Today Show/NBC. Wikileaks logo: © 2010 Wikileaks. Stalin cover: © 1943, 2010 Time Inc.

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