Ethics of naming a Person of the Year

TIME magazine made a significant value choice when it named Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg its Person of the Year over its third ranking Julian Assange. On one hand Assange did reshape international diplomacy in one giant data dump; on the other hand, if Facebook users were a country then they would be the third largest in the world. TIME is quick to point out that the annual title is not designed to be an honor, rather a statement about power and influence. TIME made a choice to recognize a power that is popularly viewed as a connector rather than an anarchic force. Perhaps it was a desire for positive spin in a hard time and perhaps, as some will surely argue, a U.S. government-back push toward giving Wikileaks less of a sphere of influence. But both of those views are mighty cynical. The naming of the Person of the Year is decidedly and even unapologetically political. The Tea Party beat out even Assange. Here’s what is different though about these three major players at the top the TIME’s list: the average American and the most influencial American cares what happens on Facebook. Average Americans may or may not give a hoot about the other two.

France’s Le Monde chose Assange instead as its Homme de l’Annee. He’s described there as “tall, thin, and elegant,” “a gifted, ultra-efficient professional” who works himself “to the point of exhaustion.” In contrast, TIME reports “great deal has been said about Assange, much of it unpleasant.” So which comes first: the adjective-laden metaphors or the conclusions about character?

Setting aside commentary on Zuckerman’s social savvy, TIME’s analysis of Zuckerman’s attitudes and assumptions about privacy are significant. The internet started out as a place for people to reinvent themselves but Facebook asks them to create a demographic snapshot or shell.  And Zuckerman admits he has made serious mistakes because he failed to understand that not everyone wants their whole lives in view. The desire to keep some things private does not mean you have something sinister to hide. The absence of privacy means the absence of intimacy, and as Sissela Bok warned, we all have a psychological need to have some control over our own information. As I’ve stated earlier, social networks will evolve with more user-friendly privacy controls and perhaps even a way to connect with family, friend, and colleagues through separate vehicles on the same platform. Real intimacy, rather than demographic coupling, may be still possible with controlled candor. Ultimately, TIME’s value choice was based not on the power of publically shared information, the desire for a better connected world, nor even giving voice to the common person. Both venues offer these things. For better or worse, Assange tends to tear people apart. Zuckerman gives new meaning to “only connect.”

Other interesting factoids:

  • The Guardian was given the honor as TIME’s top online news source. No. 2 was … The Onion. Wikileaks made the Top 5.
  • E-book sales rose by 193 percent last year.
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