Why Mark Zuckerberg, not Steve Jobs, is Time’s Person of the Year

December 15, 2010, 3:33 PM UTC

It’s mostly about timing. Apple is a story for the decades. Facebook is a story for this year.

Photo: Martin Schoeller for Time

In Time‘s online poll, Wikileaks’ Julian Assange was the people’s choice — and would have been ours as well. Steve Jobs was No. 7. Mark Zuckerberg was No. 10.

But the editors chose Zuckerberg. Why? Here’s managing editor Rick Stengel’s explanation:

For connecting more than half a billion people and mapping the social relations among them (something that has never been done before); for creating a new system of exchanging information that has become both indispensable and sometimes a little scary; and finally, for changing how we all live our lives in ways that are innovative and even optimistic, Mark Elliot Zuckerberg is TIME’s 2010 Person of the Year.

Anybody who follows Apple (AAPL) can imagine a similar paragraph being written about Steve Jobs, an individual who has shaped our world as much as — if not more than — Mark Zuckerberg, and who has a business model that actually works.

So what does Zuckerberg have that Jobs doesn’t? Let us count the differences:

  • A fresh face. Zuckerberg is this year’s “it” geek. Jobs has been around since the late 1970s. (He first appeared on Time‘s cover in 1982.)
  • A hit movie. Stengel didn’t mention The Social Network — which was nominated for six Golden Globe awards on Tuesday — but just about every news story about his pick will.
  • A cooperative nature. Zuckerberg, as Oprah Winfrey and 60 Minutes will attest, is media-friendly these days. He’ll open his doors to Time‘s Lev Grossman and do that long interview with Stengel. Jobs, by contrast, is extraordinarily stingy with his time in the best of circumstances, and he is believed to still harbor a grudge against Time Inc. for Fortune‘s 2008 cover story “The Trouble with Steve.”

One more thing: Apple is making it very hard for Time Inc. (TWX) to sell magazine subscriptions on the App Store. If the iPad had managed to save the magazine and newspaper industry in 2010 — as many hoped — we might have seen a different face on this week’s cover.

Disclaimer: Just because I’m a contract writer for Fortune doesn’t mean I know what’s going on in the halls of its sister publication. Quite the contrary. Your guess is probably as good as mine.

For Lev Grossman’s Zuckerberg story, click here.

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[Follow Philip Elmer-DeWitt on Twitter @philiped]