The news may be a little dated and You’ve likely moved on to other stories. But sometimes a bit of distance brings new clarity to complex issues. So now that a few weeks have passed since Time Magazine declared You “Person of the Year,” let’s ask: Where do You go from here?
According to Time, the story behind the choice was about “community and collaboration on a scale never seen before. It’s about the cosmic compendium of knowledge Wikipedia and the million-channel people’s network YouTube and the online metropolis MySpace. It’s 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.”
But if the magazine’s editors felt clever—maybe even a little smug—as they were secretly ordering all that Mylar for the magazine’s cover, a day or two after its release the shine was gone.
The choice got a surprisingly rough ride right around the world. A lot of important people thought it only demonstrated Time’s failure to grasp the real impact of the Internet on our political culture.
They mocked Time’s talk of a “new digital democracy,” and countered with stories of the narcissistic and often squalid state of our love affair with the Internet, from basement bloggers who crave nothing more than personal recognition to the millions of ordinary folk who find no better use for Google than to catch a glimpse of Britney Spears nude on a beach.
At week’s end, Frank Rich summed up the debate in The New York Times. In his view, Time got it half right. They picked the right person but for the wrong reasons. You were the big story of 2006, but not because of some heroic effort to wrest power from the elites. Rather, it was Your less-than-edifying dependence on the Web for self-gratification and escapism.
So who is right? Is this a story about the rebirth of democracy or a dramatic dumbing-down of public discourse?
On the one hand, the fatal flaw in Time’s reasoning is its assumption that the Internet is somehow inherently democratizing. As a result, when the editors cast Tom Paine as the first blogger, they are also making anyone who vents online a revolutionary. This fails to do justice to Paine’s view of democracy, which was about much more than just letting everyone have their say.
First and foremost, it was about exercising the new rights through reasoned and informed debate in pursuit of the common good. The critics are therefore quite right to treat Time’s claim that the Web has launched a new era in democracy as na