Vaidhyanathan: “No Thanks” to Person of the Year

Siva Vaidhyanathan says “no thanks” to Time magazine naming “youPerson of the Year. From his essay on

… Well, thank you, Time, for hyping me, overvaluing me, using me to sell my image back to me, profiling me, flattering me, and failing to pay me. As soon as I saw myself on my local newsstand, I had to buy a copy of Time.

Notice that Time framed the Person of the Year as “you.” That should sound familiar. Almost every major marketing campaign these days is about empowering “you.”

“You” have freedom of choice. “You” can let yourself be profiled so that “you” only receive solicitations from companies that interest “you.” “You” could customize “your” mobile phone with the “Hollaback Girl” ringtone, but “you” would not because that’s so 2004. So you choose Ne-Yo’s “Sexy Love” instead. “You” go to the Nike Store to get your own design of shoes. Because “you” roll like that. After all, “you” are an “Army of One.”

But to quote the Who, “Who are You?” Are you the sum of your consumer preferences and MySpace personae? What is your contribution worth? It’s worth money to someone, if only as part of a whole.

Google, for instance, only makes money because it harvests, copies, aggregates, and ranks billions of Web contributions by millions of authors who unknowingly grant Google the right to capitalize, or “free ride,” on their work. Who are you to Google? To Amazon? Do “you” really deserve an award for allowing yourself to be rendered so flatly and cravenly? Do you deserve an award because media mogul Rupert Murdoch can make money capturing your creativity via his new toy, MySpace?

The important movement online is not about “you.” It’s about “us.” It’s about our profound need to connect and share. It’s about our remarkable ability to create among circles — each person contributing a little bit to a poem, a song, a quilt, or a conversation.

So it’s not about your reviews on Amazon. It’s about how we as a community of Web users choose to exercise our collective wills and forge collective consciousnesses. So far, we have declined to do so. We have not harnessed this communicative power to force the rich and powerful to stop polluting our air and water or to stop the spread of AIDS or malaria. We have not brought down any tyrants. We have simply let a handful of new corporations aggregate and exercise their own will on us. And we have perfected online dating. …

There’s more, and I recommend everyone think hard about Siva’s conclusion:

User-generated content, whether via low-power radio or community blogs, only goes so far to fill the void. And if the subject of that content is “you,” instead of “us,” we gain nothing from the new medium.

We do ourselves a major disservice when we exaggerate the revolutionary power of ourselves as individuals. Narcissism may be good marketing. But it’s not good for humanity.

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