The Time 100: Who the Hell Are These People?

By Robert Wright

Here is Time's list of the 100 most influential people in the world, released today. Am I the only one who finds a lot of these names either new or only vaguely familiar? Dulce Martinez? Harold Hamm? Sara Blakely?

Turns out Blakely is a plucky entrepreneur who started an undergarment company and became fabulously wealthy. She specializes in shapewear, and I guess shaping is by definition a form of influence. But my question about Sara Blakely is: How many nuclear weapons are under her control? Vladimir Putin has thousands, and he's not on the list.

Maybe I'm being old fashioned. The letter from Time's editor, Rick Stengel, that accompanies the list explains that "the nature of influence changes." Now you can "tweet a phrase that reaches millions in a flash." How big a Twitter following does Vladimir Putin have?

There are certainly lots of people on Time's list associated with new forms of influence. Erik Martin runs Reddit, an example of the new, powerful social media. But one difference between new powerful social media and old powerful non-social media is that the people who run new powerful media don't have power. I mean, sure, Erik Martin can rule whole categories of content out of bounds, and set other kinds of parameters, but having done that isn't he pretty much at the mercy of the masses? If a presidential candidate wants to suck up to somebody, I'd recommend Jill Abramson or Rick Stengel over Erik Martin or Mark Zuckerberg (unless the goal is campaign donations). Zuckerberg can't get your face on the cover of Facebook.

The people on Time's list are certainly interesting. They find cures to diseases, new ways to visualize data, and new ways to educate children. If I had to title this list I'd call it "40 of the world's most influential people plus 60 people who would give a great TED talk." Or maybe "40 of the world's most influential people plus some people who exemplify important forms of influence." And maybe that kind of list makes more sense now than it would have 20 years ago.

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/entertainment/archive/2012/04/the-time-100-who-the-hell-are-these-people/256091/