In The Spirit of the Season, Time Magazine Rips You a New One: Of Prizes and WMDs
Prizes. At this time of year, you can’t escape them. Top ten viral videos. Best scandals of the year. The Darwin Awards.
And, of course, the induction into print media’s Hall of Fame: Time‘s Man of the Year Award.
This award, you’ll recall, recognizes the person who “for better or worse has most influenced events in the past year.”
Like the Academy Awards, there’s a lot of build up, the pre-hype hype, the hype, the post-hype hype sweeping up. And then, within a month, like all those New Year’s Resolutions, it all begins to blur into nothing. What does it matter, really?
Quick: Who was Time’s Man of the Year in 2006?
You don’t remember? Are you sure? Go look in your closet, check your mantelpiece, look under your bed, because it was:
You should be.
And perhaps a little embarrassed.
How could you have forgotten so quickly?
That was a big deal then.
The big deal now is that the prize went to Mark Zuckerberg, founder of Facebook, and not Julian Assange, founder of WikiLeaks. In Time‘s online poll, which runs prior to the decision, Assange stomped the competition and gave Zuckerberg the chair, garnering 20.8 votes for every one vote Mr. Social Network received.
Rigged, rigged, I say!
If this really mattered, we would need to acknowledge that, in selecting the person with the tenth highest vote total in the magazine’s online poll, Time overlooked a host of other, more deserving (as defined by more vote receiving) people, including, Glenn Beck, Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert (counted as one entity, for some reason), and Lady Gaga. I can’t say I’d be any more delighted if any of these worthies was holding the Man of the Year trophy aloft before the screaming masses. (That does happen, doesn’t it?) Unless, of course, it was You, again, Dear Reader. Then, oh then, would I release the pigeons from their cage and send them soaring heavenward.
Shouldn’t it be clear that, if three of the top five vote getters this year are in the entertainment business, the real story here is that this year is all about hearing what you want to hear–left, right, or hmmmm, from this year’s version of the X-rated singing, gyrating semi-clothed clothes horse.
The numbers are meaningless, of course. If anonymous can mount a coordinated global attack on Amazon, PayPal, Visa, and Mastercard, if they can break into Sarah Palin’s credit history, it seems likely that they could stuff the e-ballot box for this beauty contest. On the other hand, it’s a little surprising that Zuckerberg got any votes at all, given the way most Facebook users feel about him.
So, let’s agree the results are fictions and the outcome is irrelevant. (Quick, who won last year?) Why talk about it at all? One answer is that this is the genius behind managing editor Rick Stengel’s decision to select Zuckerberg–create enough controversy (even if it is over nothing), which creates interest (even if it’s utterly fleeting), which generates buzz (as in a Lord of the Flies kind of buzz), and the insignificance of the initial act (selecting a “winner”) fades from view.
It’s hard to imagine that such a consideration didn’t enter Stengel’s mind. Indeed, I would argue that it is his job to consider such considerations. It can’t be easy trying to drag readers back to Time. Across the way, Newsweek, the news magazine that once was the leading print alternative to the print version of Time, is now on its way to an unholy merger with Tina Brown’s online mag, The Daily Beast (The News Beast? Who knows?).
Stengel, doubtless, knows for whom the bell tolls.
That said, Stengel could have manufactured controversy by picking anyone other than Assange. Sure, some choices would likely have hurt subscriptions more than others: if he’d selected Glenn Beck, for instance, and my parents were still alive, they, doubtless, would’ve cancelled their home delivery service and might even have typed up a letter of protest, put it in an envelope, and mailed it off to the metropolis. If he’d picked Lady Gaga? Can’t see either of my teenage daughters suddenly deciding that Time has its finger on the racing pulse of youth culture. The feel good story of the year, The Chilean Miners, wouldn’t cause any controversy, since it would’ve just been a flower dropped on the grave of print media. And, too, it might have pointed to the people who arguably did the most lasting damage to our ecosystem this year: our friends at BP and the event that is not even hinted at in the top ten–The Gulf Oil Spill.
A border crosser from the dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico
This is the rhetorical function of lists: they lock you into discussing what’s on the list and what’s off the list, all the while keeping firmly in place the notion that in any given arbitrary block of time (the eleven months of any calendar year, the last bit reserved for voting, so don’t hold on to your world-changing acts until December), it would be possible to determine which individual or group of individuals “most influenced events in the past year.”
Is that how history works? If so, then I think the prize belongs–yes, for a fourth time–to George W. Seems like that ginned up hunt for weapons of mass destruction is still paying dividends nearly nine years later.
Here’s what Stengel has to say about his reasoning for settling on Zuckerberg:
“When I make the choice, I think of [what] has actually affected people’s lives the most [in] the past year,” he said. “Five years from now, who’s going to look smart? Julian Assange has been in the news a lot lately. I think five years from now, he’ll be an asterisk. If you really wanted to [highlight leaking, you would choose] Bradley Manning. Julian Assange was the wine bottle, and Bradley Manning supplied the wine. In the grand scheme of things, it will be a footnote to history.”
If you’re using the five-year yard stick, choosing anything in technology seems like a pretty bad idea. Myspace launched in 2002; logged its 100 millionth account late in 2006; peaked in late 2008; and now is heading south. Where will Facebook be five years from now? If it’s still the premiere social networking site, will this fact retroactively make Stengel look smart for having chosen Zuckerberg?
Seems like an odd defense for one’s standards. Just sayin’.
Quick: who was the managing editor of Time five years ago and who did that person pick as Man of the Year?
Good ahead, admit it: you don’t care.
I know I don’t.
What is interesting to me about this manufactured dust up is the fact that it pits a man who is in possession of private communications between friends the world over against a man who has begun to publish private communications between US embassies the world over that were leaked to him.
Just yesterday, Facebook published a friendship map of the world, which illustrates the global reach of its network:
The map plots data on 500 million friendships, the bright spots highlighting the most connected areas. That’s a lot of secrets and private information (these are not the same thing) being shared between the U.S. and the European Union–information that Zuckerberg is responsible for keeping secret and private.
Well, sort of private.
If my niece writes to ask if I saw the Steelers beat the Ravens, the right side bar of my Facebook page starts to be populated by ads for all sorts of great stuff related to football fandom. And now, eerily, if I visit the Huffington Post, it automatically tells me what my Facebook friends have been reading and recommending.
I actually don’t mind this, though I fully understand why it freaks others out. I figure the benefits of having access to my friends and being able to share news, pictures, videos, and enjoy their jokes far outweigh the cost of having Facebook have a file on me. But, I don’t treat Facebook as a private club house; I figure anything I post there is like anything I write in my blog–the difference is one of degree not of kind.
That said, my guess is that kids with hundreds of photos on their sites are going to wonder about how great it is that today Facebook is introducing this new facial recognition feature that invites users to identify their friends:
Tag Your Friends!
Last summer, my daughter, a rising senior in high school, learned that a young woman who was “friending” everyone in her class on Facebook was actually a uniformed neighborhood cop. The cop was sifting through all the wall posts, learning about when the parties were planned and where.
Here’s something that might surprise you. But, first, quick: how many classified diplomatic documents has WikiLeaks released to date?
A. 250 billion?
B. 250 million?
C. 250 thousand?
Here’s Glenn Greenwald, to provide the correct answer:
WikiLeaks has posted to its website only 960 of the 251,297diplomatic cables it has. Almost every one of these cables was first published by one of its newspaper partners which are disclosing them (The Guardian, the NYT, El Pais, Le Monde, Der Speigel, etc.). Moreover, the cables posted by WikiLeaks were not only first published by these newspapers, but contain the redactions applied by those papers to protect innocent people and otherwise minimize harm.
The favorite subject of the news is the news itself. What are those no-necked, brain-dead, knuckle-dragging fools over at [fill in the blank] doing now?
Greenwald is working against a mighty tide in trying to bring attention to the facts.
Check it. The not-Time-Man-of-the-Year was released on bail this evening. He will be spending the hours before his next court appearance at Ellingham Hall which, conveniently, has its own Facebook page, even though it’s an inanimate object:
Apparently, it’s a great place to have weddings if, you know, you’re into that sort of thing. Weddings n’ stuff.
As is typical for someone accused of “sex by surprise” in Sweden, Assange has been required to adhere to the following conditions, in addition to providing the nearly $400K bail, while he fights extradition:
- 10pm curfew
- daily report to police station
- surrender of passport
- ankle cuff
The only thing they’ve left out is morning and evening cavity searches by TSA members in training.
As important as I believe Assange’s project is, in all its radical indeterminacy and hairy unmanageableness, I actually would come down on the side of another candidate for person of the year, if I believed that distinction mattered, “The Unemployed American[s].”
I drive through the borough where my girls have grown up and it seems like half the town is now out of business. The bike shop was the first to go–and then, in no order, one of the gas stations, various knick-knack and hope-and-a-prayer stores, the only bar/restaurant, the old fashioned ice cream shoppe. The only supermarket in town tried to pull out on the grounds that it was trapped in a structure from the past, one that wouldn’t allow it to compete with the other mega-stores bursting with all their greatness. For a few tense weeks, it looked like the entire town was facing the prospect of doing their local grocery shopping at CVS or Rite Aid where, if you’ll forgive my French, the fresh food section blows.
These realities are all intertwined, of course. A nation bankrupted by the fiction that it could sustain two wars without end; a nation under prepared to lead in the transition to the network-centric paradigm; a nation suddenly awash with the unemployed, the uninsured, the uninterested. (What’s WikiLeaks?)
But, this is an awards ceremony. Let’s not dwell on the fact that nationwide the unemployment rate is a robust 9.3% or that this translates into 9.5 million people, more than 6 million of whom have been unemployed for more than 27 weeks.
Before we pause to congratulate Zuckerberg on putting the dream back in the American Dream, while stuffing his billions in his mattress, first let’s award the consolation prize:
So far, this ad is only running in Karachi, but c’mon, this baby’s got legs.
The news is the news. The news is the advertising industry. The advertising industry is the news.
Is this the world anyone wants?
This is part of an ongoing meditation on the End of Privacy. While it can be read on its own, you might enjoy starting at the beginning, where I lay out the project of thinking about privacy in relation to examining information about Tyler Clementi that is openly available on the Web. This mediation starts here: The End of Privacy: A Case Study (Tyler Clementi and WikiLeaks)
Glen Greenwald’s essay can be read in its entirety on: Anti-WikiLeaks Lies.
The quote from Rick Stengel may be found here: Time’s Person of the Year is Zuckerberg.