Time’s 2006 Person of the Year

December 21, 2006

Well, congratulations to all of you, since we're all collectively Time's Person of the Year. Granting this honor to the second-person pronoun may be slightly goofy, but it does show that Time understands the growing importance of user-generated content. Some, however, have problems with Time's selection, and not just because it's an amorphous mass of people. Take, for example George Will, who, growing increasingly agitated on a segment of This Week, criticized the choice as “narcissism.” “So much of what is done on the Web is people getting on there and writing their diaries as though everyone ought to care about everyone's inner turmoils.”

Will is right in that narcissism probably does play a big part in a lot of user-generated content. But that's not the sum total of what's on the Web, and even that narcissism is put to good use. The thousands upon thousands of people who “narcissistically” upload their ideas, voices, and videos to the Web create a vast pool of information from which we all can draw, and see for ourselves (and our friends) whether it is funny, insightful, or informative. And the distributed, individualistic (narcissistic, if you will) nature of all of these contributions means that, within that massive pool, there's going to be something that appeals to even the smallest niche group. Even more interestingly, the broad diversity of stuff means that the sudden popularity of a blog, song, video clip or catchphrase can identify previously unknown cultural touchstones among people scattered all over the world. These are the ideas that would have escaped the notice of television executives and record labels, ideas that have their day through people voting with their eyeballs–and then their links.

But none of this would be possible without the sheer volume of content that people place on the Web every day. The nearly-infinite variety available for us to pick and choose from is exactly what makes it possible for these hidden gems to emerge. And requiring ISPs and content hosts like MySpace and YouTube to screen and censor user-created content beforehand would stifle this flow of ideas. Forcing users' ideas through such a system would not only limit the amount of content that users can put online, it would substitute one set of content arbiters (ISPs and hosts fearful of lawsuits) for another (record labels, TV stations, and other traditional media outlets).

What makes you, the user, able to spread news, information, art, and commentary so well are the freedoms we have to share information–freedoms that copyright law has long recognized. So in the coming year, if you see your ability to rip, mix, speak, or upload constrained by overzealous vested interests or outdated laws, be sure to speak up. After all, someone's bound to listen to 2006's Person of the Year.