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Time’s person of the year: fat, ignorant and xenophobic?

Like David Weinberger, I’m very surprised to be named Time’s person of the year (along with you, and you and you). Like Rebecca MacKinnon, I see the choice of “you” as a vindication of the work that we do at Global Voices. And, like Matt Hurst, I’m somewhat disappointed by Time’s justification of their selection.

In showing enthusiasm for all things “web 2.0”, precisely what Time’s celebrating gets a bit blurry. Their overview article points to many of the exciting phenomena taking place online today: Wikipedia, OhMyNews, Flickr, Facebook, Amazon reviews, Open Source Software and several flavors of blogging and video authoring. But the focus on YouTube in subsequent articles shows that much of the enthusiasm for ’06’s most hyped acquisition focuses less on citizen media and more on America’s continuing love affair with television. Two examples given of YouTube’s power are its role in letting people see Stephen Colbert’s commentary at the White House correspondent’s dinner and in providing a second chance for sitcom “Nobody’s Watching”. While it’s certainly interesting that YouTube behaved as a “court of appeals” for these programs (stealing a phrase Jay Rosen has applied to blogs), the only thing “you” had to do with these programs was watching them.

“You” evidently also includes political consultants “Creative Response Concepts” – you know, the guys behind Swift Boat Veterans for “Truth” – and the producers of Michael J. Fox’s Missouri election ad. Evidently who makes a video isn’t so important as that the video is “viral”… This isn’t to say that there isn’t citizen media taking place on YouTube – the piece on Kamini’s absurdly wonderful Marly-Gomont video is a great example of how YouTube is giving voice to people who otherwise might not be heard. But a huge amount of the content that makes YouTube so popular is professionally created content being used in questionable legal fashion.

(The confusion between citizen media and new media delivery isn’t unique to video – a good bit of the enthusiasm for blogging is actually enthusiasm for RSS, and the increasing tendency of newspapers, magazines and virtually everyone else to put all their content online in a subscribable format.)

Beyond the question of whether Time is really celebrating citizen media, or different ways we watch media, Rebecca raises an interesting set of questions about who gets to author media in this “new” world. (Which, as I’ve argued elsewhere, isn’t actually all that new…)

How do we help more people become creators of their own media? What kind of outreach can Web 2.0-savvy citizens provide to the still-uninitiated? How do we bridge massive and endless barriers of language and culture? Are the technical tools accessible enough to the next billion Internet users, or are we in need of new solutions better suited to the developing world? And how about people who are being prevented from speaking – or being heard – by governments, corporations, and other powerful entities?

These are all great questions, and ones that everyone involved with Global Voices is wrestling with. But there’s another critical question raised by Rob Rogers:

In other words, even if we manage to build tools and strategies that allow people in developing nations to express themselves… even if we offer sufficient protection to people in repressive nations to allow them to speak… even if we figure out how to translate between the thousands of languages people speak… will anyone will pay any attention?

While the read/write web means that anyone (i.e., anyone with a net connection, access to a computer, sufficient literacy and computer literacy, and political freedom) can create media, it also means that lots more media gets created. But it’s unclear how much more media most of us can consume. Which means we’ve got to consume this media selectively – either we find what we’re searching for, or we watch what we’re shown by a new set of gatekeepers. (I’m a lot more likely to see a viral video if it’s mentioned on Metafilter or BoingBoing than if it were just posted to YouTube.)

Old media gatekeepers, for all their shortcomings, often retain a quirky fondness for international news. This may be nostalgia for their (short-staffed and, increasingly, closed) overseas bureaus or genuine concern that informing global citizens requires global news coverage. While CNN is a long way from providing media coverage in proportion to global population (that would be a LOT of China and India stories if they did), it tends to give more global diversity than you’re likely to encounter on YouTube, unless you’re explicitly searching for global content.

Read/write media doesn’t make us xenophobic or ignorant… but as Time observes, “Web 2.0 harnesses the stupidity of crowds as well as its wisdom.” New tools like blogs, video and photo sharing can make it possible to have a far deeper, more intimate view of life in other parts of the world… but only if we bother to look for these views. If not, it’s possible that Web 2.0 just gives us thousands more ways to learn more about Britney and her underwear habits.

5 thoughts on “Time’s person of the year: fat, ignorant and xenophobic?”

  1. Pingback: Martin Stabe » links for 2006-12-25

  2. I only read the cover story article on TIME Magazine’s Person of the Year 2006 award which in my opinion was just fine. I didn’t drill down into all the related articles that focused on YouTube and some of the other sites you have mentioned above. Never heard of half these sites you’ve pointed out as is the case with 90% of the global online audience.

    The questions you and others have posed are important but the answers may depend more on us than on them (the traditonal gatekeepers of the press and electronic media and even more important the guys who actually OWN the communications networks worldwide).

    I think that we (the YOU in TIME’s Person of the Year award) should be happy that such a well known, respected, and influential publication as TIME Magazine has paid attention to us and bestowed this honor to online authors, media producers, technologists and their audiences and users. At the very least this recognition could serve to inspire some of us to work hard at getting better and better over TIME with what we are trying to do online and in our respective communities and countries around the world.What exactly is it that WE are trying to do, anyway?

    Heck Ethan, take the money (the award) and run. Let’s see now, that’s a million bucks divided by roughly 50 million blog authors plus their readers plus the other guys online = $00.000001 per/person minus taxes. Did I leave anybody out? China? What about China?

    Left a message for you and Rebecca over at my place. Have a Happy New Years celebration back there in Old Mass and don’t spend all of the TIME award money in one place.

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