Few publications in the world take themselves as seriously as Time magazine, and Christmas each year finds it at its most unctuous and self-important, as Time chooses its "Person of the Year". This year, the award for newsmaker of 2006 is given to "You" - the internet user.
But perhaps not you or me. The kind of internet user lauded by Time doesn't do what most of us do - window shopping on eBay, adding bon mots to Popbitch or Something Awful, or grazing for free music. It has in mind a special kind of "You" - the wiki-fiddling, bloggers of Web 2.0, or the "citizens of the new digital democracy" as Time editor Richard Stengler calls them.
We've noted before how the web hype causes people to lose their minds: creating a virtual parallel universe, complete with its own off-the-shelf belief system for the hard of thinking. People don't pick and choose their causes here because Web 2.0 provides them with all the causes they need - as a pre-packaged slate. So someone who thinks blogs are "democratizing" media will also think Wikipedia is a splendid thing, that copyright is evil, that Wi-Fi will free the people, that Net Neutrality is something to worry about, that economics are being turned upside down by "the Long Tail", and that mash-ups are inherently creative. In other words, it's a cult - the latest in a long line of cults to emerge from Northern California.
And it's a given that it's all "revolutionary".
"It's a story about community and collaboration on a scale never seen before, burbles Time's Lev Grossman. "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."
(We doubt if Grossman would dare make such a claim in New Orleans' Lower Ninth Ward today; Katrina was a natural disaster and public scandal in which we owe the bloggers nothing.)
Even more improbably, Time claims that "you control the Information Age". This, on the day that news broke of an identity theft involving more than 100 million Americans, and as citizens challenge the pervasive state monitoring by the unholy hairball of telecomms companies and state agencies.
Stengler admits it's a cop-out. Previous winners have included Hitler and Stalin, but since 2001 Time feels it's too troublesome to explain that "significant newsmaker" is not a moral endorsement, and so in 2001 shunned Osama Bin Laden for Mayor Guiliani. The most deserving conventional candidate this year, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, was denied, Stengler explained :
“It just felt to me a little off selecting him,” he said.
While wiki-fiddlers everywhere will be delighted with this patronizing pat on the head from a media giant, not everyone is so easily seduced.
Venture Capitalist and pundit Paul Kedrosky thinks this absurdity marks the zenith of the bubble. John C Dvorak thinks it's even dafter than Time choosing "the computer" as PoTY in 1984. Nick Carr reminds us of the curse of PoTY.
Alone in offering a note of dissent in the magazine itself is NBC anchor Brian Williams, who warns that the self-indulgence on offer with "personalized" media may result in people getting more stupid, not smarter.
"The danger just might be that we miss the next great book or the next great idea, or that we fail to meet the next great challenge ... because we are too busy celebrating ourselves and listening to the same tune we already know by heart," he writes
As so often, Seth Finkelstein has the sharpest epigram, pointing out "Popularity Data-Mining Businesses Are Not A Model For Civil Society" - words which should be written on Web 2.0's tombstone. (Read the comments to see how one of these generic web cultists, or robots, responds - in typical fashion).
We've been over this ground so many times repetition is surely pointless, is it not, dear readers? Especially when you've done such a splendid job. But may we point out - again - that a "democracy" that excludes most of the population, and where a tiny number of people vote very often, but most don't vote at all, isn't really a model for anything. ®