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December 15, 2010

Face of the Year

Time Magazine’s choice of Person of the Year is meaningless as data, but meaningful as metadata. Picking one person as the most influential in a year is almost always just silly. No one takes it seriously except as a signifier of broader cultural currents.

This year it’s Mark Zuckerberg. That seems to me to be one of the many reasonable choices Time could have made. But I have two meta-comments.

1. I’m glad that Time took MZ over Julian Assange. Facebook is truly influential and important. WikiLeak’s importance is primarily symbolic, and it has been given that symbolic importance mainly by forces that want to use it as justification for killing what they don’t like about the Internet — its openness, its bottom-uppity character, its distrust of extrinsic controls…in other words, all that makes it the Internet.

2. The contrast the Time article draws between MZ and the portrait of him in The Social Network (a movie I did not care for) will, I hope, hurt the movie’s chances at the Oscars. It makes vandalism of Wikipedia’s biographies of living people look bush league.

(Lev Grossman’s cover story about MZ for Time is well worth reading.)

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May 15, 2010

If Mark Zuckerberg invented the Web

Imagine an alternative universe in which Mark Zuckerberg is born before Tim Berners-Lee, and invents the Web.

  • Mark Zuckerberg forms a company and develops the Web as a commercial enterprise.

  • MZ owns and controls the HTML standard. Nothing changes in it unless MZ thinks it’s a good idea.

  • MZ owns and controls the client — MZ Explorer — that uses that standard. While other apps are permitted API access, the browser is whatever MZ decides to give us.

  • Users can only create pages on MZ’s server, subject to MZ’s content policies.

  • MZ decides how much about the author of each page is automatically disclosed, and he changes his mind every few months.

  • There is no “View Source” so users can easily figure out how to become developers.

  • Innovators’ creations are limited to the API access that MZ allows and are subject to the changes in policy and pricing structures that MZ decides on.

  • Users have no systematic, assured way of transferring out of the Web all of the pages they’ve created within it. Do they even own the pages they’ve created?

  • If the right deal is struck, the Web could be sold to a media company at any moment.

This alternative history writes its own ending: The Web would be a boring, small, and of little consequence. The real Web unleashed a world-changing renaissance because a modest researcher at a physics lab gave it to us as a gift — open and free.

The Web knows how pages are connected. Social networking sites know how people are connected. Both are obviously crucial. But, Facebook, for all its success, is not living up to the potential for social networking sites, not by a long shot. The social networking site that will do for the connections among people what the Web has done for the connections among sites is awaiting its own Tim Berners-Lee — a person or group that understands that control constrains, but gifts liberate.

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