My thoughts on being Time Magazine’s ‘Person of the Year’ 2006

Time Magazine is no stranger to controversy as regards their ‘Person of the Year’ feature. Some folk have never forgiven them for once giving the dubious accolade to Adolf Hitler, but they have failed to realise that it’s not necessarily a valedictory honour – the Person of the Year is the one deemed to have been most influential on world events, for good or ill. One thing is for certain – this year the editors hit just the right note of controversy with exactly the right demographic by announcing that ‘you’ (or ‘me’, or ‘us’, or more accurately ‘users of social networking and media platforms’) were 2006’s Person of the Year.

This angered a fair few people, who accused Time of jumping on the latest bandwagon and grandstanding to hide their own growing irrelevance in the media landscape. Matthew Hurst, co-creator of BlogPulse and general social media boffin, was particularly vociferous (Time quoted in italics):

How does the content on YouTube really matter? I mean, I love watching old ABBA videos, but…

You can learn more about how Americans live just by looking at the backgrounds of YouTube videos—those rumpled bedrooms and toy-strewn basement rec rooms—than you could from 1,000 hours of network television.

That’s right. It is so important for me to know about who has a poster of Britney on their wall and who has one of Justin – I need to know this and yet, amazingly, network TV is not telling me!

We camcordered bombing runs and built open-source software.

Yeah baby – and we certainly weren’t building open-source software before 2006. BTW, what percentage of the 16.6% of people with access to the intenet built open source software?

On the other side of the fence, George Dvorsky (who as a transhumanist advocate is no stranger to taking a contrarian position to the mainstream) decided to accept Time’s plaudits with aplomb :

You may not feel that you deserve this award, but I certainly do. I worked freakin’ hard all year producing content for which I did not receive one single penny. I produced hundreds of original blog entries, created over a dozen podcasts, uploaded a number of pictures to Flickr, edited Wikipedia entries, uploaded some videos to YouTube, added comments to innumerable posts, Dugg user-posted articles, and much, much more.

Moreover, I’m contributing to the ever increasing diversification of media and alternative reporting. I don’t have to answer to anyone except myself. All my content comes from me and is not driven by typical Big Media agendas and conventions. Self-published content for all the world to see is a monumental victory for freedom of speech — a fact that Time, a magazine under threat from this type of content, is undoubtedly aware of.

Speaking of contrarians, the redoubtable David Brin reacted to the Time article and piped up with his traditional ‘good, but still nowhere near good enough’ angle on the utopian democratising powers of cybertechnology:

Pearls are said to float upward in sh*t. But so MUCH of the ranting online today is BS, how can anyone hope for good ideas to actually coalesce and for bad ones to finally die, as they eventually deserve?

For decades I have been trying to come up with innovations that might introduce some competitive power to this new arena. Sometimes, it seems hopeless. As when the clueless editors at Time Magazine blithely announce that we are already in the promised age of empowered citizenship… when half — fully half of the needed tools are absolutely missing.

(As always with Brin’s blogging, that one needs to be read in full to be properly appreciated, and will reward the time spent doing so.)

Personally, I’m kind of lukewarm on the whole thing. I can see the upsides to social networking, web2.0 or whatever else it’s being called this week. But I can also see it being hyped heavily, just like any new technological arena that promises a big (if not yet fully realised) profit margin. Rule number one of marketing is “sell the benefits, not the product”, and that probably explains a lot of the utopian hyperbole that is being bandied around at the moment.

The flip-side of this is the potential for misuse by nefarious operators, from the individuals and small groups right up to the big players – the governments. Living in a country with more CCTV cameras per capita than any other, I have reason to at least keep my guard up as regards my privacy – at least until Brin’s Transparent Society is finally realised through sousveillance and the participatory panopticon.

But I digress – social media is the issue. And when you open the social media can, the copyright/copyleft worms come wriggling out. A photojournalist friend of Canadian sf author Robert Sawyer published an article at The Register that blames ‘citizen journalism’ and wholesale copyright theft on the internet for completely eroding the financial bedrock of his profession and handing the money to big business:

User Contributed Content should be more accurately termed ‘Audience Stolen Content’, because media groups rarely pay for Citizen Journalism images and more often than not, either claim the copyright or an all-encompassing license from contributors, when they send their pictures in. That’s a copyright grab in all but name.

Only a fraction of the savings or additional income derived from publishing and syndicating user-contributed images is then actually reinvested in journalism. Most of it simply helps pay the media company’s shareholder dividend. Massive newspaper job losses and wage cuts have cut a swathe through newsrooms this year and the slack is often taken up by stolen content, stolen from their own readers.

So much for media “democracy”. Some newspapers and magazines are enthusiastically accepting such “content”, simply because it’s cheap or free, and the quality of the content largely reflects that.

Even Chris Anderson, chronicler of ‘The Long Tail’ phenomenon, has been obliged to admit that enhanced visibility of niche market content won’t necessarily put much money into the pockets of its creators:

…the Long Tail never promised you Adsense riches. If what you’re doing has value, it does promise you more attention, reputation and readership. But converting that non-monetary currency to actual money is up to you, and there are as many ways to do that (from better job offers to consulting) as there are people who wish to try.

Reputation and readership … words that we are accustomed to hearing from Cory Doctorow as regards copyright reform and his own motives for distributing free copies of his work in digital form, this time in an interview with a science fiction fan site :

The economists’ best research of the effect of P2P downloading on music and movies is that it has a marginally negative effect on a negligible portion of works in the top 40 (in other words, it puts a small tax on blockbusters), no effect on works in the middle of the pile; and a positive effect on works in the “long tail” produced for niches. As Tim O’Reilly says, “Piracy is progressive taxation.” If you’re a content millionaire like Justin Timberlake or Steven Spielberg, it bites you a little. If you’re in the middle class, it’s a wash — generating as many sales as it costs. If you’re in the great majority where you are more endangered by obscurity than piracy, it gives you a lift.

The only way we’ll get to the bottom of this debate is riding out the next decade or so and seeing what happens. Certainly it’s not looking great for the content industry, as they can’t seem to create a DRM system that a) doesn’t piss people off and b) can’t be hacked. But they’re far from out for the count, and they have a lot of weight to throw about. Some sort of sensible détente between consumers and distributors would probably be ideal, provided that the people who actually do the creative work get some of the money too.

So, were ‘we’ the most important people of 2006? In some respects, I guess we all are – every year, not only the one just gone. But in the way that Time meant it? Personally, I don’t think it’s as big as they’re making out, but the way the internet is providing opportunities for ordinary people to communicate with one another across the globe is definitely very important, and will certainly inform the shape of our societies in the next decade or so. As any honest futurist would admit, it’s all about educated guesswork. So, as a library assistant and book reviewer, I’ll leave the serious guesswork to the educated futurists and read what they have to say about it – and then maybe blog about it afterwards.

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