All about YOU

Time Magazine names “you” person of the year. But are you really worth it?

by Keri Carlson

WE hide in dark crevices, waiting for the chance to strike. WE do not go after the enemy, but rather, entice the enemy to come to US, come to OUR turf. WE know that here, WE control the rules and no matter how big, how powerful the enemy is, WE are swift and sneaky.

WE have found a new kind of guerrilla warfare – waged not with illegally bought guns or homemade bombs, but with video clips of Euro-trash techno lip syncs and exploding bottles of Diet Coke.

“Big media” can no longer control what WE watch and, thus, what WE think. WE are in control of that now, and instead of “Two and a Half Men,” WE say that what WE really want to watch is a masturbating cat. Our weapon of choice is YouTube, and the old Hollywoodized media is powerless against this medium, fueled by the sweat of the common people, like YOU.

Ok, so it’s pretty absurd to paint YouTube as a Marxist method for toppling the entire media power structure. But reading Time Magazine’s choice to make “You” person of the year, in response to the growing number of “everyman” generated web content, that’s exactly how the magazine describes the significance of MySpace and Facebook, blogs, Wikipedia and, especially, YouTube. It’s a revolution.

The author, Lev Grossman, even made the grandiose statement that “Web 2.0” is, “about the many wresting power from the few and helping one another for nothing and how that will not only change the world, but also change the way the world changes.” Whoa.

While Time envisions the Internet community as a friendly, supportive and nurturing place, most blogs criticized the magazine’s choice, claiming it was an easy cop-out, avoiding anything “political” (even though the article attempted to frame YouTube and “citizen blogging” that way) as well as an attempt for an “old” media organization to appear hip and on the cutting edge. Both critiques contain some truth to them – as well as show that the Internet “community” thrives on hating. (Sorry, but most of US hate YOU.) Still, most of the criticism fails to question the big issue: If blogging and YouTube are really a form of digital democracy that is a threat to the media Empire, why are the kings so welcoming?

Time’s person of the year nomination is one of the bigger love-fests for Web 2.0 culture, but they are not alone in their gushing. Most mainstream media have been reluctant to criticize new Internet media, perhaps out of fear for looking un-cool, out of touch and, worst of all, threatened. This reluctance to critique, however, creates a false sense of the power and impact of the majority of blogs and YouTube videos.

Time was not necessarily off by their choice because undeniably, YouTube as well as MySpace and Facebook have made a major impact and defined 2006. Even beyond the YouTube site itself, the videos are reposted on MySpace comments and thousands of Web sites and blogs. It was, for much of the younger generation with Internet access, a year loaded with watching early ’90s videos with MTV-nostalgia, ghosts riding the whip and “lonelygirl15” episodes. Even the war in Iraq began to look different with competing clips from all different sides of the conflict. And if your local news station refused to show the hanging of Saddam Hussein, you could easily find it on YouTube.

The popularity of YouTube, Wikipedia, MySpace and Facebook this year makes the sites worthy of year-end acknowledgement and reflection. But Time, somewhat dangerously, assumes these sites are doing a lot more than they actually are and, at the same time, ignores what they might really be doing.

The magazine imagines Web content producers as martyrs – describing the uploaders as brave individuals with such a great drive to create art that even after a long 9-5 day, these heroic men and women still spend hours filming, writing and editing “penis” out of Wikipedia entries. Of course there are plenty of web-junkies who deserve a big pat on the back and, indeed, spend a lot of time and energy creating something not guaranteed to get many hits. But, a majority of sites, YouTube clips and book reviews are done quickly and out of pure boredom. (Btw, it took me forever and every ounce of creative juice I had to set up my webcam and film myself lip syncing to Mariah Carey. I AM a hero!)

In an interview with one of Wikipedia’s biggest contributers, who goes by SimonP, Time had to ask “Why would somebody donate so much of his time?” even after Simon explained he was a college student with a really boring job. If Web 2.0 sites are a way to a kind of freedom, it’s mainly a quick escape from life in a cube. With an increasing number of people stuck in front of a computer all day with mindless data entry that can be completed in 20 minutes, what else are they going to do except write a blog and Wiki pages?

The biggest problem with the article, however, is the neglect of two important details on YouTube and the blog world.

1. A significant number of clips on YouTube are not “the people” challenging the mainstream through uploading their own art, but clips taken from television. This act does challenge the old television network model and creates a new way we think about television, but that doesn’t necessarily mean revolution. Already, stations like NBC are adapting to YouTube and offer special exclusives on the site. Even most blogs are not filled with original content and instead base most of their writing in response to New York Times articles. And very few blogs actually break news (besides, of course, what the blogger had for lunch that day).

2. Time, only in passing, mentions the less-than-great videos and blogs, defending them as just a part of the larger dialogue. It should not be downplayed however, how much of the Web content is total crap. On YouTube, there are way too many videos of some dude making weird sounds at the camera (or something to that extent). Even the more awesome videos (like an obscure Nordic band’s video with dragons and lasers) make YouTube a savior for a boring desk job, but, again, not quite a technology that will inspire any true “off with their heads” moments.

What, then, does Time, as well as other media supporters of Web 2.0, find to be so revolutionary? While it is true, one of the year’s biggest scandals, that led to the Mark Foley resignation, broke through a blog, this is not a common occurrence for “average” bloggers outside of the mainstream.

Therefore, what seems to be enough of a “revolutionary” act is simply the change from an individual as solely a consumer of media, to a producer of media. A big change for sure: How we are defined and how we define ourselves as individuals is ever more dependent on the content of our personal MySpace pages. We need to be watched and noticed – and Web 2.0 gives us the tools to do so.

At a time when the Patriot Act and issues of privacy are hot topics, we consent more and more to placing what used to be considered private, on public display. Can we really be that upset at the government for looking at what library books we check out when we willingly site what books we read on our MySpace, Facebook and blog pages? And when we list such interests and activities on our pages, who is actually reading it?

Time had a point at the beginning of the article: The king has been dethroned. Web 2.0 has given “the people” more opportunities to produce and spread their voices. But just because the king is dead and our 15 minutes are actualized, doesn’t mean structures of power and control have disappeared (or that mainstream media will fall anytime soon).

Or maybe, Time is completely right and “Strange Faces and Noises I Can Make III” will lead to liberation.