I agree with Time's selection of Mark Zuckerberg as person of the year.
With a membership approaching 600 million, there is no denying that Zuckerberg has -- by some measures -- direct influence on more lives than most of the world leaders. But that's only a small part of what makes him an important world figure. He's changing the way people think about relationships and, most important, how we organize and share the information and images that are the core of our lives.
Zuckerberg isn't just the founder and CEO of an influential company; he's also the architect of the notion that sharing information among a wide group of people can actually be beneficial. Like it or hate it, but Zuckerberg's passion to get people to be at least semi-public with their name, photo, school and work place is an important part of his ideology. He wants people to be findable and truly believes that people's lives with be enhanced if they use the Internet to interact with those they care about. Obviously, a lot of people agree. Just about everyone I know -- even people who rail against Facebook's privacy policies --is now on Facebook.
Growing Up and Evolving
As someone who has observed and interviewed Zuckerberg over the years, I can also say that he too is evolving. When I met him a few years ago, I found him not only shy but awkward and off-putting, but over the past few months I've seen a different Zuckerberg emerge. With a couple of notable exceptions, I've found him to be relaxed, direct and often funny. The guy who Leslie Stahl interviewed a couple of Sundays ago on 60 Minutes is the real Mark Zuckerberg -- not the one depicted by Aaron Sorkin in The Social Network.
Sharing Not Necessarily Dangerous
The most controversial aspect of Zuckerberg is the way Facebook treats personal information, but encouraging people to share isn't necessarily a bad thing. As someone who's been involved in online safety since almost since the term was coined, I've put a lot of thought over the years about what information people ought to share and who they should share it with. There was a time when most of us in the online safety world believed that we -- and especially children -- should keep our personal lives personal and avoid going online to share where we live, where we go to school and what we look like. But Zuckerberg changed that by encouraging people to do just that. And it turns out, according to the Crimes Against Children Research Center, that sharing personal information isn't necessarily dangerous, even for adolescents.
Of course, that doesn't mean we should share everything with everyone but, to his credit, Zuckerberg did build tools into Facebook that allow people to limit access to most of what they post. Some have criticized Facebook about the complexity of those tools and because users have to opt-out of some of some sharing, but at least the tools are there.
Zuckerberg didn't just change the way we socialize. He changed the way many people do business (companies using Facebook to reach out to consumers) and has even influenced the way we evaluate and pick our elected leaders. And he's not stopping. Even as I write, engineers at Facebook are working on new ways to get people to share information and photos. But Facebook isn't all technology. In an interview a few months ago, Zuckerberg talked about how human interactions -- people tagging and friending each other -- can be more powerful than algorithms when it comes to bringing people together.
I don't know if Facebook will even be around 10 years from now, but I do know that social networking -- however we define it -- will have an even bigger impact on our lives.
Larry Magid is co-author of A Parents' Guide to Facebook (a free 34 page booklet) and co-director of ConnectSafely.org, a non-profit Internet safety organization that receives financial support from several technology companies including Facebook.
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