In 2010, the Most Popular Boy in the World floated above little-girl throngs in a metal heart. He serenaded them with love songs, danced, strummed an acoustic guitar to show he was deep, and played drums to show he was hard. At 16, he defined, as so many of these quivering admirers testified, an adolescent’s idea of “cute”: a softly symmetrical face of cushiony lips and Proactiv skin and chocolate bon-bon eyes. And he had seemingly accessible style, a multiplex-date costume of hooded sweatshirts (pristinely laundered) and matching sneakers (often deadstock-condition high-tops). The cherry on top of this dreamboat sundae was his haircut—his swoopy modern-mod-shag reverse-mullet hair!—which was such a sculptural masterpiece that cameramen would drive for miles to film him blow-drying it into shape. But what really made this particular Most Popular Boy in the World extraordinary—different from even his superlative ancestors, whom Mom and Nana still sometimes recall wistfully—was that this one didn’t come from somewhere foreign (Liverpool), domestically remote (Gary, Indiana), or supernatural (The Mickey Mouse Club). In 2010, the Most Popular Boy in the World came from somewhere close by: your computer.
Technically, Justin Bieber hails from Canada, but it hardly matters. Even the tourist alliance from his hometown of Stratford, Ontario, knows where their most famous native was actually conceived: On a map of pre-fame JB landmarks, the #1 spot is the local theater steps “where Justin used to busk (as seen on YouTube).” YouTube is hardly a parenthetical, of course. It’s the central figure in his origin story, a homespun search-engine abyss where drunken music-management bro-dude Scooter Braun discovered a clip of the then-13-year-old performing, a happy accident that snowballed into this uvula-waggling avalanche. In turn, YouTube is also Justin Bieber’s personal talent agency (where his management claims they discovered his back-up singers, Legaci), his cable station (where his videos have amassed more than one billion views), and a virtual trophy wall (where his Drake-cameo, Ludacris-abetted, bowling-party clip for mega-smash “Baby” holds the record for Most Viewed Video of All Time). The broadcast channel is also a hysterical fan-club convention, where you can see the mere thought of Justin Bieber’s existence cause a three-year-old toddler named Cody to blubber on camera—audibly boo-hoo, sniffle, shake like a mini-drunk with the DTs, etc.—which strangers have watched again and again, and in various edits, 40.3 million more agains.
In 2010, the Most Popular Boy in the World had to emerge this way. In 2006, Time magazine’s Person of the Year was the deeply lame choice “YOU,” a second-person shorthand for the seismic potential offered by user-generated portals like Wikipedia, YouTube, MySpace. But four years later, Time‘s Person of the Year is Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg, an online innovator singled out not for his social-experiment invention or behemoth network, but for his overarching insight. Which is to say that it’s not simply the tools or their user mobs that ultimately alter Life As We Know It, but rather the visionaries creatively manipulating them both. And so not only is “YOUTUBE” thanked in the liner notes of Justin Bieber’s iTunes juggernaut My World 2.0, along with tributes to his 35-year-old mom, Chuck Norris, and Jesus, but so is anyone who “ever watched a video, posted a Facebook comment, a twitter [sic] or just told a friend.” In other words, literal word-of-mouth is still appreciated, but it’s a far less valuable introduction.
With 18 million Facebook fans and 6.6 million Twitter followers, Justin Bieber is the first teen idol you can stalk in real-time. The teenager announces when it’s time for bed on Twitter, ignites hormonal fires by reporting on his new suntan, and even presents a façade of accountability. (Like when @spoonswaggering demands, “Where have u been?” @JustinBieber responds, “16 year old kid on vacation. I was sleeping in. FELT AWESOME :)”) He also flirts with Raven-Symoné and schools rougher boys in Chivalry 101 (“Treat a woman right fellas. It’s about her not u”). But he never loses sight that this is a very public space, even warning a potential make-out partner on My World 2.0 bonus track “Kiss and Tell” to keep her mouth shut and her thumbs idle. (“I don’t want to see Tweet about J.B.” he warns. Oh, and “Stay off that Facebook.”) Zuckerberg has his storied Aquarium conference room; Bieber’s fishbowl is Twitter, where the Most Popular Boy in the World convenes with the Most Critically Adored Musician in the World—this year’s big Pazz & Jop winner, Kanye West, of course—to discuss the year’s Most Likely Unlikely Collaboration, West’s Raekwon-assisted remix of J.B.’s “Runaway Love.”
Time identifies Zuckerberg as “part of the last generation of human beings who will remember life before the Internet.” But Bieber’s generation won’t even remember life before social media. Which is perhaps why, according to Klout, a site that measures online influence, the Canadian teenager wields more social-media power than Barack Obama or the Dalai Lama. Yet however improbably, social media simultaneously humanizes the kid: No matter how many times “God’s greatest creation” (in the words of an actual fan-made T-shirt) performs at the White House or has middle-aged ladies tossing over-the-shoulder-boulder-holders at him in Jersey, he, too, stares into the same empty 140-character space as his fans; he, too, employs those very same @ signs to communicate. Even Mom and Nana don’t do that.
Otherwise, Bieber’s approach is all textbook pop-star seduction. Like Elvis, he makes eternal promises. Like the Beatles, money can’t buy him love. Like his hero Michael Jackson, he wants you back, oh, baby—he thought you’d always be his. And though it’s creepy to hear the Biebs adulterate females who’ve just sucked on sippy cups from their moms’ purses—”How many of you out there are single?” he sometimes asks during shows—it’s not his fault. There’s no relationship status on Facebook that reads “too young.” It was Zuckerberg who created a reality where children are single.