Nearly 7 million copies of Time magazine’s annual “Person of the Year” issue are set to arrive in mailboxes and on newsstands in the next few days. The cover declares that Person to be none other than “You. Yes, you.” It explains, “You control the information age. Welcome to your world.” The image is of a computer with a flat screen monitor and a screen-laminate of reflective Mylar. Readers are invited to gaze Narcissus-like at their own reflection.
Managing editor Richard Stengel explains the odd choice. He uploaded a video to YouTube asking for input. The responses were numerous. Within days, the video had “tens of thousands of page views and dozens of video submissions and comments.” People from across the globe sent in nominations for all kinds of different Persons, including “Sacha Baron Cohen, Donald Rumsfeld, Al Gore and many, many votes for the YouTube guys.”
The editors’ choice is presented as an exercise in populism, and that’s certainly an easy line of attack. In unconnected phone conversations over the weekend, nearly a half dozen people joked to me that they were going to put “Time 2006 Person of the Year” on their resumes.
It’s worth noting that the selection was really the opposite of a democratically informed decision. A lot of people put in great efforts to vote for their choices, and what did the staff of Time do? Did they cede some of their coveted big media gatekeeper status and acknowledge the wisdom of the little guy? No. They decided to toss those results and do something completely different: a trend story about the social effects of better, cheaper technology.
The choice was a stretch but, at first glance, not much more than some past picks. In 1982, the personal computer won and in 1988 the editors decided to ring environmentalist alarm bells by naming “Endangered Earth” the “Planet of the Year.” Since the award’s inception in 1927, it has been awarded to a few composite characters, including the American fighting-man (1950); the U.S. scientist (1960); the Baby Boomer (1966); the American woman (1975); and, again, the American soldier (2003).
And yet, there is something uniquely demented about this year’s choice. It claims to celebrate You, the reader, the YouTuber, the amateur, the activist. Editor Stengel goes so far as to compare You to Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Paine. So then what does Time choose to highlight as examples of greatness in action?
Leila is a 20-year-old single Muslim woman who lives in Maryland and posts diary videos on YouTube: “She says um and ah a lot. She has been known to drink and blog. Sometimes she doesn’t speak at all, just runs words across the screen while melancholy singer-songwriter stuff plays in the background.”
Megan Gill is a 22-year-old senior at the University of Portland who just broke up with her boyfriend and changed her status from “dating” to “single” on her Facebook page. She has 708 registered “friends” who check back for regular updates on her site, such as “Megan is so over first semester,” “Megan is bummed about the election results,” “Megan is tired of letting people down.”
Warren Murray and Leanne White are copyeditors at the Guardian who produce their own video podcast, Crash Test Kitchen. It differs from most cooking shows in that they often screw up the recipes and fight on the air.
Kamini is a black French rapper who grew up in a tiny town in the countryside. He may one day be able to quit his job as part-time nurse with great rhymes like, “I wanted to revolt, except that there, there’s nothing to burn./ There’s just one bus for the high school, same for the community center,/ Not worth going and burning a neighbor’s car,/ Cuz they don’t have them, they’ve all got mopeds.” (People who watched the music video on the French version of YouTube were wild about it. Honest.)
There are more examples, but this cross-section should give You a pretty good taste.
As far as trend stories go, this should have been an easy one. That advances in technology are allowing more people to customize and produce their own media is inarguable, and some of the results are truly impressive. Rather than seeking out great examples, the magazine chose to highlight mostly the weird and embarrassing. Why?
Part of the problem is institutional. The issue was written entirely by regular Time staffers and contributors who seem to have great difficulty understanding this strange new media man — especially the part about his hatred of condescension.
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