Consider this: the flagship publication of one of the most powerful media conglomerates in the world declares that flagship publications and powerful media conglomerates no longer choose where to hoist flags or exercise power.
That’s exactly what happened last week when Time Magazine declared its Person of the Year to be you, me, and everyone who contributes content to new media aggregators like MySpace, Amazon, Facebook, YouTube, Ebay, Flickr, blogs and Google.
"It’s about the many wrestling power from the few and helping one another for nothing and how that will not only change the world, but also change the ways the world changes," Lev Grossman breathlessly writes in Time.
"And for seizing the reins of the global media," Grossman says, "for founding and framing the new digital democracy, for working for nothing and beating the pros at their own game, Time’s Person of the Year for 2006 is you."
Well, thank you, Time, for hyping me, overvaluing me, using me to sell my image back to me, profiling me, flattering me, and failing to pay me. As soon as I saw myself on my local newsstand, I had to buy a copy of Time.
Notice that Time framed the Person of the Year as "you." That should sound familiar. Almost every major marketing campaign these days is about empowering "you."
"You" have freedom of choice. "You" can let yourself be profiled so that "you" only receive solicitations from companies that interest "you." "You" could customize "your" mobile phone with the "Hollaback Girl" ringtone, but "you" would not because that’s so 2004. So you choose Ne-Yo’s "Sexy Love" instead. "You" go to the Nike Store to get your own design of shoes. Because "you" roll like that. After all, "you" are an "Army of One."
But to quote the Who, "Who are You?" Are you the sum of your consumer preferences and MySpace personae? What is your contribution worth? It’s worth money to someone, if only as part of a whole.
Google, for instance, only makes money because it harvests, copies, aggregates, and ranks billions of Web contributions by millions of authors who unknowingly grant Google the right to capitalize, or "free ride," on their work. Who are you to Google? To Amazon? Do "you" really deserve an award for allowing yourself to be rendered so flatly and cravenly? Do you deserve an award because media mogul Rupert Murdoch can make money capturing your creativity via his new toy, MySpace?
The important movement online is not about "you." It’s about "us." It’s about our profound need to connect and share. It’s about our remarkable ability to create among circles — each person contributing a little bit to a poem, a song, a quilt, or a conversation.
So it’s not about your reviews on Amazon. It’s about how we as a community of Web users choose to exercise our collective wills and forge collective consciousnesses. So far, we have declined to do so. We have not harnessed this communicative power to force the rich and powerful to stop polluting our air and water or to stop the spread of AIDS or malaria. We have not brought down any tyrants. We have simply let a handful of new corporations aggregate and exercise their own will on us. And we have perfected online dating.
But there are signs of real profound triumphs of "We." Wikipedia is the best example. Blogs are another. Communities — both local and global — have generated amazing collections of content and communication in recent years. They have truly challenged the status-quo in ways that Time hypes so well.
During the Southeast Asian Tsunami of December 2004 we relied on video and photo blogs to give us a vivid account of the devastation. No collection of professional reporters could be in every important place at the same time. Only the grand, networked "we" could have shown us the vastness and gravity of that event. Compared to the instant, global Tsunami coverage, nothing that LonelyGirl15 or Tila Tequila did on MySpace matters at all.
The Time article describes this "Web 2.0" phenomenon as a "revolution." Let’s be very careful about that term. First of all, a real revolution would be a radical rupture in the flow of history. I would submit that what we now call "user-generated content" has always been a major part of the American media diet.
Take a look at a copy from 1910 of the Daily Forward, the newspaper for immigrant New York Jews, and you will find a major portion of it devoted to letters from its community of readers. People wrote in asking for advice. Others responded with advice. The Forward, like all community newspapers back when community newspapers mattered, made itself essential by facilitating public deliberation and giving voice to the voiceless.
Now, to keep even that phenomenon in perspective, it’s important to realize that today’s Web grants all of us who are wealthy enough to afford one of these computer gizmos and a subscription to enough bandwidth the ability to both broadcast and narrowcast even the most mundane and irrelevant of expressions. So we do. The Forward, of course, carefully selected its published letters and responses. Not everyone who wanted a voice got one.
And ever since the rise of radio producers realized the value of the "real," the authentic, and the common. Audiences love to hear or see people whom are no more talented or important than they are. It’s comforting to know that with a little luck someone might care what I think.
It’s part of a slippery slope between true democratic culture and crass commercial culture. Because we all matter equally in the polis we pretend we all might matter equally in the public square. Granting that illusory wish can be very profitable.
So what’s truly revolutionary about the current communicative moment is part of a 20-year process of the steady proliferation of digitization and networking in the hands of millions of people. It’s not about a handful of sites that make such connections easier and cheaper. Those are valuable changes. But they are not revolutionary in and of themselves.
The results of this revolution (Of the late-20th and early 21st centuries — not of 2006) are hard to gauge. I tend to see them as substantially positive. More people have a chance to be heard on matters of public concern. And more artists and songwriters have a chance to find audiences without selling out to bullying corporations. And as consumers, we have a better chance of avoiding exorbitant prices for goods when the Web links us to more competing vendors than our local main street markets (or Wal-Mart) used to offer.
But we should not be blind to the costs as well. While we find it easier to "link" to "friends" thousands of miles away because they also appreciate the musical stylings of Coldplay, we spend less time in the presence of our neighbors — the folks who would come knocking (we hope) when they notice those community newspapers (that we probably no longer get) piling up on our doorstep.
As sociologist Eric Klinenberg explains in his brilliant new book Fighting for Air: The Battle to Control America’s Media, media concentration remains a formidable problem. Not long ago, in times of need, we could rely on our local radio stations and newspapers to help us deal with dangers and help our neighbors. No more. The lack of local, community-based communication (thanks to more automated radio stations and consultant-driven playlists) endangers us all, especially during times of crisis and disaster.
User-generated content, whether via low-power radio or community blogs, only goes so far to fill the void. And if the subject of that content is "you," instead of "us," we gain nothing from the new medium.
We do ourselves a major disservice when we exaggerate the revolutionary power of ourselves as individuals. Narcissism may be good marketing. But it’s not good for humanity.
Siva Vaidhyanathan is an associate professor of Culture and Communication at New York University. His latest book is The Anarchist in the Library: How the Clash Between Freedom and Control is Hacking the Real World and Crashing the System (Basic Books, 2004). He blogs at Sivacracy.net.