By Indi Samarajiva
Mark Zuckerberg was recently named TIME magazine’s person of the year. This comes as no surprise to the over 500 million people who know him impersonally as the founding head of their online social network, Facebook. It does, however, disappoint supporters of WikiLeak’s Julian Assange, another strong contender. They both have something in common, in that both technological visionaries profess a desire to make the world a more open place. In the process, the world has opened up to them.
Mark Zuckerberg is only 26 years old, but his trip to the position of world’s youngest billionaire began at an early age. At age 12, he developed ZuckNet enabling basic instant messaging in his family home, a year before AOL Instant Messenger. In his senior year of school he developed Synapse, a programme that used artificial intelligence to learn users’ music listening habits. Microsoft and AOL tried to purchase the product and hire Zuckerberg, but he decided to go to university at Harvard instead.
There, he built an application called FaceMash which enabled people to select the best looking person around campus from a group of photos. This proved so popular that it shut down Harvard’s Internet and resulted in the end of that idea. Zuckerberg, however, adapted to produce what would become Facebook, a site which he launched from his dorm room as a sort of electronic student directory.
At the time Zuckerberg briefly worked with two other students on a similar site called Harvard Connection. When Cameron and Tyler Winklevoss later sued him for stealing their idea, Zuckerberg settled out of court for an estimated USD 65 million.
From Harvard the site grew rapidly and expanded to other Ivy League schools. Zuckerberg dropped out of school and devoted himself full time as the site continued to expand to other universities, then high schools, then the general public.
Today Facebook has over half a billion users and is valued at an estimated USD 50 billion following a USD 450 million investment by Goldman Sachs. At various points Zuckerberg has resisted offers of millions and then a billion dollars to sell, continuing to keep Facebook under his close control. In the meantime, he is an extremely low profile billionaire, renting a small home, driving a simple car and dating the same girl he dated in college.
Despite his portrayal as an ego and sex driven anti-hero in the fictional movie Social Network, Zuckerberg remains a geeky and unobtrusive character. He is a brilliant programmer who majored in Computer Science, but he is also personally social and co-majored in Psychology. Of course, he graduated in neither, but Zuckerberg defies easy characterization. He studied ancient Greek and classics intensely as a child, but now devotes time every day to learning Mandarin Chinese. One is a dead language, and the other is a language in a country where his product is banned.
On an international level, however, Zuckerberg has disrupted existing business models and accepted ideas. Facebook is now more powerful than Google and it offers up an entirely different model of the internet than the anonymous, open network it began as. Instead, Zuckerberg has offered up a world that is simultaneously more and less private. It is more private in that people can have their own walled off worlds, but it is less private in that those walls are often paper thin, leaky and result in information leaking out anyway.
Countries like Pakistan have sued Facebook for blasphemy (based on the action of a few users), countries like China have banned it, and even Sri Lankan authorities have had to deal with complaints by girls and families that their private photos are being stolen and circulated. On a personal level, people have been embarrassed by parents or employers seeing their private photos or thoughts, and some have even lost jobs or relationships.
At the same time, it is rare for modern young people to not be on Facebook, the network has hooked up countless relationships, reunited lost friends, and generally changed the world. For all of these reasons and more, Mark Zuckerberg is TIME’s person of the year and one of the thought and technology leaders of the century.