Peer Review: Person of the Year

You may be Time’s Person of the Year, but big media is still in control.

By Douglas Rushkoff|Friday, March 16, 2007

I wonder how many people picked up Time’s “Person of theYear” issue, gazed into the little silver mirror on the cover, and felt genuinely proud to be among the 300-million-or-so people the magazine’s editors felt deserved this special honor. After all, we had some stiff competition.

I can almost see Time’s editors sitting around the conference room table in their crisp shirts—frozen by the possibility of offending subscribers in red states or blue states, or both—finally throwing up their hands and turning the whole conundrum on its head: If these pesky Internet-blogging readers are going to give us hell no matter who we choose, why not just choose them?

There’s a perverse logic to this abdication of responsibility. The Internet makes it possible for people to get information without any editorial filtering or framing, so why bother acting like editors at all? Better yet, why not get behind this Internet thing rather than continuing to fight it? Let’s show the great unwashed masses of bloggers and YouTube-ers out there that we’re on their side for a change.

“Welcome to your world,” the article greets us. (They’re welcoming us? Weren’t we here first?) “For seizing the reins of the global media, 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.”

Gee, thanks. But there’s something pandering about all this false modesty. It only betrays how seriously the editors still take their role as opinion makers: Our liberation from top-down media isn’t real until the top-down media pronounce it so.

And where is the evidence that we’re actually liberated? Sure, YouTube and Facebook and Wikipedia constitute a fundamental change in the way content is produced. But for the corporations profiting off all this activity, it’s simply a shift in the way entertainment hours are billed to consumers. Instead of our paying to watch a movie in the theater, we pay to make and upload our own movies online. Instead of paying a record company to listen to their artists’ music on a CD player, we pay a computer company for the hardware, an Internet access company for the bandwidth, and a software company for the media player to do all this.

“Silicon Valley consultants call it Web 2.0, as if it were a new version of some old software. But it’s really a revolution,” Time enthuses. Sorry, but revolutions are those moments in history when a mob storms the palace and cuts off the heads of the people who have been exploiting them.

Instead, Time’s willingness to acknowledge the power of Internet users everywhere hints at corporate America’s confidence that it has finally weathered the storm: If what’s currently playing on YouTube is the best “the people” can come up with, then media monopolies have nothing to fear. Even the most popular videos on the Web are hits for only a few days—tops—and most political discussions are so inane they make cable news shouting matches look intelligent. May as well let them eat blog.

I’m as enthusiastic as anyone about the Internet’s potential to connect people and foster collaboration on an unprecedented scale. Wikipedia alone justifies the entire experiment. But it is fantasy to think that there has been a wholesale shift in the relationship between consumers and the corporations that sell to them.

We are still creating content using expensive consumer technologies and uploading it to corporate-owned servers using corporate-owned conduits. More significantly, we are doing all this with software made by corporations whose own interests are embedded in its very code. User agreements on many video sites require us to surrender some or all of the rights to our own creations. iTunes monitors our use of music and video files as keenly as marketers monitor the goings-on at MySpace and SecondLife for insights into consumer behavior, and Gmail’s computers read our e-mail conversations in order to decide which ads to insert into them. Each and every keystroke becomes part of our consumer profile; every attempt at self-expression is reduced to a brand preference.

Had Time pronounced us Person of the Year back in 1995—before the Internet had been reduced to an electronic strip mall and market survey—it might have been daring, or even self-fulfilling. Back then, however, the magazine was busy deriding the Internet with a sensationalist and inaccurate online child pornography cover story. In the intervening years, Walt Disney and its fellow media conglomerates may have cleaned up Times Square, but now our kids are whoring themselves for attention on News Corp–owned MySpace. Corporate America is secure enough in its victory that it’s now selling it back to us as a supposed shift in media power.

Yes, we are using media differently, sitting in chairs and uploading stuff instead of sitting on couches and downloading stuff. But in the end we’re still glued to a tube, watching mostly crap, arguing like angry idiots, surrendering the last remains of our privacy, and paying a whole lot more to large corporations for the privilege.

When Time Warner–owned CNN announced the Person of the Year in a CNN Presents special, it aired what amounted to an infomercial, not just for its sister magazine but also for its parent company’s online services, AOL and Road Runner. One way or another, all of us anointed Persons of the Year are really just customers.

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