Facebook's Zuckerberg is Time's Person of the Year

The social networking magnate beats out WikiLeaks' Assange and the Tea Party

Mark Zuckerberg Time Magazine cover

The man behind the world's largest social network has been named Time's Person of the Year.

Time magazine announced today that its editors picked Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg for the annual honor, beating out runners-up the Tea Party and Julian Assange, the man behind the internationally controversial WikiLeaks.

Time credited Zuckerberg with connecting more than half a billion people through Facebook and mapping the social relations among them. And because Facebook's 26-year-old CEO also is credited with creating a new system of exchanging information that is changing how people live their lives, he was named Person of the Year.

"The way we connect with one another and with the institutions in our lives is evolving," wrote Time Managing Editor Richard Stengel in an essay posted online today. "Our sense of identity is more variable, while our sense of privacy is expanding. What was once considered intimate is now shared among millions with a keystroke."

Zuckerberg, according to Stengel, is at the epicenter of these cultural and social changes.

"The social-networking platform he invented is closing in on 600 million users," he added. "In a single day, about a billion new pieces of content are posted on Facebook. It is the connective tissue for nearly a tenth of the planet. Facebook is now the third-largest country on Earth and surely has more information about its citizens than any government does. Zuckerberg, a Harvard dropout, is its T-shirt-wearing head of state."

Hadley Reynolds, an analyst at IDC, noted that 2010 was the year that media hype about Zuckerberg went through the roof.

"Hopefully, Time is giving him the recognition because he is the youngest tech baron to pledge to give away billions -- in his case, before they've even been monetized. Bill Gates had practically retired before he got the Time kudos in 2005. More likely, they know Zuckerberg's face will sell magazines, and they can only dream of being in touch with an audience like the one Facebook touches every minute."

Zuckerberg undoubtedly has gained a lot of attention this past year.

Facebook took a lot of heat this year for a string of privacy issues, with Zuckerberg being seen as the man behind the company's liberal stance on users' privacy. And when the furor was just cooling down, Zuckerberg found himself the focus of the movie The Social Network, which portrayed him as a socially inept and angry young man who became more villain than hero through the course of the creation of Facebook.

However, Zuckerberg seemed to polish his image in September when he created a new foundation called Startup: Education and donated $100 million to the struggling Newark, N.J., school system. Earlier this month, he pledged to donate the majority of his wealth to charity.

Rob Enderle, an analyst at Enderle Group, said he was surprised that this year's Person of the Year wasn't Assange, since WikiLeaks has made such a public splash as well as a hefty impact on various governments.

"I actually thought Julian Assange had a bigger impact this year because he moved governments," Enderle said. "It made me feel like they were pressured to take the less controversial person. Facebook is very powerful but it isn't yet a force for anything. Twitter is actually stronger when it comes to world-changing events. But Zuckerberg would have been my second choice."

Sharon Gaudin covers the Internet and Web 2.0, emerging technologies, and desktop and laptop chips for Computerworld. Follow Sharon on Twitter at @sgaudin or subscribe to Sharon's RSS feed . Her e-mail address is sgaudin@computerworld.com.

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