Zuckerberg vs Assange, part 2

Continuing on from my previous post on the Time Person of the Year award, having taken a look at Assange let’s take a look at the flip side – the selection of Mark Zuckerberg.

What is the big deal about Mark Zuckerberg?  Well, he invented Facebook.


So, why is this such a big deal?  Well, previous innovators in the computer space have previously made Time’s Person of the Year: Jeff Bezos in 1999 (founder of Amazon), You (i.e., everyone in the world due to social networking services like blogs, YouTube, etc), Andy Grove in 1997 (for Intel),  and the Computer (1982) to name a few.  The selection of Zuckerberg is not that far out of the ordinary.

The idea of Facebook is that it is a social networking service that connects everybody.  You can talk to your friends, you can see what your family is up to, you can view what your favorite restaurant is up to (e.g., follow Starbucks), and so forth.  You can share content with your friends.  You can tag all of your friends’ pictures, and they can tag you.  In short, you can stay connected.  This is what the Internet has been doing for years, but now Facebook makes it possible to do it all in a centralized location.  Everyone reading this post right now is affected by Facebook in one way or the other – either you have a Facebook account, or people very close to you do.  And many of the people who are in your closest circles spends a lot of time on Facebook (or even a medium amount of time) and find it very useful to stay up to date with their friends.  It’s a way to stay in touch with others whereas pre-Facebook you’d probably never hear from most people again after you leave them geographically.  You might exchange emails but that’s different than passively reading their news feed.

Not only that, but games have become a major part of Facebook’s success with things like Mafia Wars and Farmville (two games I have never played and probably will never play but you never know).  So not only is Facebook extremely successful, but others are piggybacking off of its success?

How successful is Facebook?  In 2010, it got its 500 millionth subscriber.  That is somewhere between 1/3 and 1/2 of the world’s Internet population.  And it did it in less than seven years.  How many companies on the Internet do you know have 500 million users in that short a time frame?  Not only that but in 2010 Facebook surpassed Google as the website that people visit the most.  That is an absolutely incredible amount of growth for the startup that is still private and less than 7 years old.  Indeed, to knock the behemoth Google off its perch is something that no other company has come close to succeeding in doing.  Facebook’s worth has been valued at over $50 billion by Goldman Sachs (although who knows how you can trust those guys). 

I bring this up because in 2010, Facebook became a very big deal.  Yes, it was growing fast and furious before, but in 2010 it really hit its stride and went main stream.  Those of us in the geek industry – our opinions are probably a little muddled because we are early adopters of technology.  We get to stuff first anyhow.  But when the rest of the population catches on and rapidly adopts it, that becomes a big deal.  It’s kind of like this: if I invented a car that ran on sunlight, it’d be a big deal but it’d be a niche industry.  However, if it became cheap and adopted by the general public en masse, then it becomes a big deal to everyone instead of only me and my friends in the auto industry.  It is the same with Facebook.  In order to be big, you must be mainstream.

And Zuckerberg is ultimately the guy behind all of this.  Facebook doesn’t coerce people to join it, although it does suck you in.  But you don’t get to 500 million friends without doing a lot of things right.  Those of you anti-Facebook types out there, let me ask you this: how many services have you built that serve 500 million people?  How about 100 million?  How about 5 million?  If you claim 5 million, how long did it take you to get there?  And how much money are you making off of it?  I’m not being snarky, but the reality is that the market has spoken when it comes to Facebook whether we like it or not.

Thus, one could argue that the Time recognition of Person of the Year is, perhaps a bit late, a recognition of Facebook’s hitting critical masse big time in 2010 – much more so than in previous years.

But the flip side is whether or not Zuckerberg really deserves the title.  For all of Facebook’s accolades, it has a lot of criticism as well.  Facebook is great at collecting information and sharing it.  They are really, really bad at protecting it.  If you look up “privacy” in the dictionary, it will give you the definition.  Then when it comes to antonyms, it says “See Facebook.”  Data is shared in so many ways at Facebook you have to wonder what people are thinking when they introduce new features and everything is exposed.

This wouldn’t be that big a deal except that Facebook’s reach is very pervasive.  You might say to yourself smugly “Oh, I have all my settings hidden in Facebook.  They have nothing on me.”  Except that they do.  Your data might be private but your friends are not.  If you have a spouse and his/her data is public, then advertisers can use that data.  If they are in their 30’s and have young children, advertisers can use that data to serve up ads for cars with high safety ratings.  If you’re in your twenties, you might see lots of ads for dating sites.  How might advertisers get this?  If you have friends who are in their twenties.  Or your parents have their ages indicated.  If you see ads for flowers, it could be because you are in a relationship.  And on it goes.  You don’t need to reveal your information in order for others to make intelligent guesses about who you are and what affects you.  In order to do that, you need to prevent your social networks from doing the same thing.  That will never happen; you’re pretty much screwed in that regard.

Facebook is also changing the way we conduct ourselves in terms of what’s embarrassing and what’s not.  People can put embarrassing pictures of you on the web and then tag you.  If a potential employer, or relationship interest, or business partner, or anything comes across information that you wouldn’t have shared but someone else did, that could affect you.  If people write inappropriate things on your wall or comment on your pictures, that says something about you.  For example, if someone leaves a string of curse words on your wall (as in casual conversation), what does that say about you if you are using colloquial language?  Does it mean you are the same way?  What sorts of circles do you run in?  And so forth.  Indeed, there are some teens today that think that as they grow older they will need to change names and their identity because it will have become so polluted in their younger days.  The fact is that Facebook opens up a whole new avenue of exposure whether you want to or not.

Then there’s the issue of Zuckerberg himself.  If you’ve seen the movie The Social Network, Zuckerberg comes across as a very aloof, self-centered socially inept individual.  Of course, the way that he is portrayed is dramatized for creative license.  It’s very doubtful that he’s like that in real life although how many of us know geeks that like to code and whose social skills are maybe a bit subpar?  That has a ring of authenticity although like I say, it probably is not very representative of real life.  However, what does seem to be beyond dispute is how Facebook got started – HarvardConnection never came to fruition and eventually Facebook settled the claim with those whose idea Zuckerberg allegedly stole.  Similarly, the co-founder of Facebook resorted to a legal dispute to have his name as co-founder restored so as to avoid being squeezed out by parties.  Indeed, it is unlikely that Zuckerberg would have done any of these maliciously; he’s still very young and most likely was concentrating on the technology and not the business side.  That’s what geeks do, I’ve been there.  Yet the fact remains that the idea of Facebook is not entirely original; but it is the most successful.

So there you have it.  Is Zuckerberg the Person of the Year?  Did he affect the world the most in 2010, whether for better or for worse?  Is Time late to the party?  You can make the argument both ways.  I’m going to go out on a limb here – when it comes to Assange vs Zuckerberg, my choice is Zuckerberg.  I think that Facebook does change the way the world works, will continue to do so, and Zuckerberg created enough of it for me to give him credit as the creator of Facebook. 

That’s my position.

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