12.15.10

How Zuckerberg Changed the World

In 2010, the 26-year-old Facebook founder recreated how humans communicated. Company biographer David Kirkpatrick gives 10 reasons he deserves Time's Person of the Year.

Many ask whether at a mere 26, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg could possibly merit being named Person of the Year by Time magazine. For them it's like Obama getting the Nobel Prize in the first year of his presidency. Perhaps merited, but premature.

From my vantagepoint, having chronicled Facebook and Zuckerberg's story, there is irrefutable logic in recognizing Zuckerberg's uniquely historic impact on the world. A legitimate question remains—should it have been this year?—but only because I suspect that he will likely have even more impact next year. And perhaps more after that.

Still, 2010 was monumental for Zuckerberg. Here are 10 reasons why:

1) Facebook added 250 million new users, reaching more than 600 million in just seven years—an unprecedented achievement, the fastest-growing company of any type in human history. It surpassed Google as the Web's top destination.

2) The service was Zuckerberg's idea and creation. No matter what story The Social Network might pretend to tell, he singlehandedly conceived and initiated Facebook. I emailed the most important early co-founder, Dustin Moskovitz, Zuckerberg's Harvard roommate (whose own role is drastically downplayed in the movie), to ask what he thought of Time's designation. His reply: "With my very naive interpretation of what Man of the Year means, I do think he deserved it, sure."

3) Facebook is transforming lives globally. It operates in about 100 languages. The second largest country there (after the U.S.) is Indonesia, with 30 million active users, according to the Facebook Global Monitor, published by Inside Network. The Monitor in November reported that more than 10 percent of the population uses Facebook in 51 countries.

4) This is a fundamentally new form of communication. In every medium that preceded it, we "sent" a message to another person—telegram, phone call, email, text. But on Facebook you merely do something. The software figures out who sees it. It is the first time real automation has come to mass human communication.

5) Zuckerberg, as CEO, has always had absolute and total control over the evolution of this stunningly successful operation. He controls three of five board seats, and thus cannot be dislodged or overruled. Facebook really is a reflection of his will and his vision.

“With my very naive interpretation of what Man of the Year means,” says Facebook cofounder Dustin Moscovitz, “I do think he deserved it, sure.”

6) His commitment to the service over his own short-term self-interest was proven in late 2007 when he turned down an offer from Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer to buy Facebook for $15 billion. He would have personally taken home about $4 billion at age 23, but didn't even consider accepting the offer.

7) With a personal net worth of around $10 billion, based on the price of recent sales of Facebook stock in private markets (the company is not yet public), his personal business achievement surpasses anyone his age, ever.

8) Facebook has enormous impact in diverse realms—including politics, media, marketing, privacy, our sense of identity, and our definition of friendship. Its use as a political tool by its members, for example, has shaken politics in countries including Iran, Colombia, Egypt, and Italy.

9) Facebook's impact on the Internet has continued to broaden even outside its own servers. Over 2 million websites now use various aspects of Facebook's software platform, aiming to capture some of the viral communications power that Facebook uniquely makes possible. These platform tools include the "like" button now increasingly ubiquitous across the Web (including the widget next to this very story).

10) Zuckerberg pushes Facebook to continually change and improve its product, and that has kept it growing and relevant. In April, the company dramatically extended its platform. In August, it created a new location-based service called "Facebook Places" which enables users to tell friends and businesses where they are. In November, it announced a radical new form of messaging which many experts believe will replace email for hundreds of millions. In addition, throughout the year it grew its "Facebook credits" product to become the primary way people spend money in games on the service. Credits could become a sort of global money inside the walls of Facebook. And a landmark Skype partnership announced in October could make the process of making a voice or video call dramatically easier—who needs to remember numbers when you will be able to just click on a name in your Facebook friend list?

Given the increasing pace of developments surrounding Facebook, it's possible a similar list a year from now will be even more dramatic. Naming any one person Person of the Year is intrinsically arbitrary and subjective. But Mark Zuckerberg deserves it as much as anyone.

David Kirkpatrick writes about technology for the Daily Beast. A former Fortune reporter, he is the author of The Facebook Effect: The Inside Story of the Company that is Connecting the World.