Happy New Year! I’m writing to you personally because I know you’re probably concerned about falling into a post-2006 funk in the wake of the online revolution and all the attention the media has payed to you — well, itself, really, now that you’re part of the new media. I mean, once TIME makes you “Person of the Year,” what’s next?
Often, not such good things. Charles Lindbergh was the first to receive the honor, in 1927. Subsequently his oldest child was kidnapped and murdered and Lucky Lindy moved to Europe where he became a noted anti-Semite. Following Haile Selassie’s 1930 nod, the Italians kicked him out of Ethiopia and he spent five long years in exile in England, during which time several of his family members were executed or died in Italian custody (on the other hand, he’s worshiped as a deity by Rastafarians, who smoke pot in his honor). Your predecessors also include Adolf Hitler, Joseph Stalin, Nikita Khrushchev, and Richard Milhous Nixon, potent reminders that just because they make you “Person of the Year” doesn’t mean they like you or that you won’t ultimately end up impeached or dead by your own hand in a military bunker.
The backlash began immediately, in fact, with critics calling your award a “cop out” — how, for instance, could they pass over Kim Jong-Il, North Korean proto-nuclear nut and head of the finest ring of American currency counterfeiters ever to grace the black market? But 2006 isn’t the first year that TIME crowned an entire generation or group. “American Women” were the winners in 1975 (overworked, underpayed moms, look how well that’s worked out), and “the Middle Americans” won in 1969, which, now that I think about, could be the real harbinger of things to come — because that means it took just three years for the 1966 winners, “Twenty-Five and Under,” to hand over the reigns of influence to complacent burghers.
So, how to avoid the “Person of the Year” curse, keep that Zeitgeist high, and perpetuate a giddy feeling of self-importance? Here’s a clue: If a media giant gives you an award for “revolutionizing” the industry, you either (A) haven’t actually won the revolution, (B) are already safely co-opted, and/or (C) are providing a steady stream of income.
An excerpt from TIME’s intro to your award: “Who are these people? Seriously, who actually sits down after a long day at work and says, I’m not going to watch Lost tonight. I’m going to turn on my computer and make a movie starring my pet iguana? I’m going to mash up 50 Cent’s vocals with Queen’s instrumentals? I’m going to blog about my state of mind or the state of the nation or the steak-frites at the new bistro down the street?”
The answer can be approached two ways.
Obliquely: Why mention pet-iguana movies, soundtracks, and personal rants ahead of politics? Because that’s what most folks are doing on the web — making the world a better place just for themselves, and doing it primarily, in this age of reality television and talk shows, by being heard, and in being heard, feeling validated. So far it’s unclear to me that more amateur book reviews are leading to better literature, for instance, and while YouTube is eight kinds of crazy fun and does make me feel sort of connected to my fellow humans, for every Rodney-King-style exposé, there seems to be 1,000 “Dick in a Box” truffles.
Directly: People who can afford to. People with computers and free time and a full belly. The Digital Divide, the gap between technology haves and have-nots, has actually grown in the last decade and Digitaldivide.org reports that researchers have figured out that being connected doesn’t do you any good if the technology and programs aren’t designed to actually serve your community. The website quotes a World Bank report, “that the quality of digital access being received by low income Thais is one-way, entertainment-oriented, commercial and technologically backward and may be accelerating the exodus of untrained youth from rural areas into cities.” Why commercial and entertainment-oriented? It provides the quickest investment return.
Which brings us to the “mojo” arm of the revolution. In early December, Yahoo! and Reuters announced that they would begin using images and video submitted by amateur freelancers. Initially, the material is appearing only on the web, but in 2007 Reuters plans to begin distributing it to print publications that subscribe to its service. Mojos won’t be paid for web-only postings, although Reuters has said it will make “relatively small” payments for items used in print. In the media, eyeballs drive revenue, and content draws eyeballs. What YouTube taught big media is that you can get people to provide content for nothing (and simultaneously advertise your product with a low-budget video clip). Meantime, mojos and bloggers are paying the connection fees, buying the computers, and in their spare time maybe blogging about Network Neutrality.