By George F. Will
Thursday, December 21, 2006
Time magazine asked a large number of people to name the Person of the Year. They were in a populist mood and named the largest possible number of Persons of the Year: Everybody.
Of course. The most capacious modern entitlement is not to Social Security but to self-esteem. So Time's cover features a mirror-like panel. The reader -- but why bother to read the magazine when merely gazing at its cover gives immediate and intense gratification? -- can gaze at the reflection of his or her favorite person. Narcissism is news? Evidently.
To the person looking at his reflection, Time's cover announces, congratulations: "You control the Information Age." By "control" Time means only that everyone is created equal -- equally entitled to create content for the World Wide Web, which is controlled by neither law nor taste.
Richard Stengel, Time's managing editor, says, "Thomas Paine was in effect the first blogger" and "Ben Franklin was essentially loading his persona into the MySpace of the 18th century, 'Poor Richard's Almanack.' " Not exactly.
Franklin's extraordinary persona informed what he wrote but was not the subject of what he wrote. Paine was perhaps history's most consequential pamphleteer. There are expected to be 100 million bloggers worldwide by the middle of 2007, which is why none will be like Franklin or Paine. Both were geniuses; genius is scarce. Both had a revolutionary civic purpose, which they accomplished by amazing exertions. Most bloggers have the private purpose of expressing themselves for their own satisfaction. There is nothing wrong with that, but there is nothing demanding or especially admirable about it, either. They do it successfully because there is nothing singular about it, and each is the judge of his or her own success.
According to the Pew Internet and American Life Project, 76 percent of bloggers say one reason they blog is to document their personal experiences and share them with others. And 37 percent -- soon, 37 million -- say the primary topic of their blog is "my life and experiences." George III would have preferred dealing with 100 million bloggers rather than one Paine.
Stengel says that bloggers and the people who upload videos onto YouTube (65,000 new videos a day; 100 million watched each day) are bringing "events" to us in ways that are often more "authentic" than the services of traditional media. But authenticity is easy, and of no inherent value, if it is simply and necessarily the attribute of any bit of reality ("event'') captured on video.
Time's Lev Grossman writes that "an explosion of productivity and innovation" is underway as "millions of minds that would otherwise have drowned in obscurity" become participants in "the global intellectual economy." Grossman continues:
"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 union or the steak-frites at the new bistro down the street? Who has that time and that energy and that passion?
"The answer is, you do. And 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."
There are, however, essentially no reins on the Web -- few means of control and direction. That is good, but it vitiates the idea that the Web's chaos of entertainment, solipsism and occasional intellectual seriousness and civic engagement is anything like a polity (a "digital democracy"). Time's bow to the amateurs who are, it strangely suggests, no longer obscure, and in the same game that Time is in, is refuted by a glance -- which is all an adult will want -- at YouTube's most popular videos.
Time's issue includes an unenthralled essay by NBC's Brian Williams, who believes that raptures over the Web's egalitarianism arise from the same impulse that causes today's youth soccer programs to award trophies -- "entire bedrooms full" -- to any child who shows up: "The danger just might be that we miss the next great book or the next great idea, or that we will 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."
The fact that Stengel included Williams's essay proves that Stengel's Time has what 99.9 percent of the Web's content lacks: seriousness.