'They,' more than 'You,' are revolutionizing media

Time magazine's Person of the Year winner – 'You' – is a bit farfetched.

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It has now been more than a week since "You" – and everyone else – were named Time magazine's Person of the Year. You've had a chance to reflect and let it all sink in. Maybe you've been thinking how it was a nice way to close out 2006.

But something feels a bit hollow about the whole experience, right? And not just because the funhouse-esque mirror on Time's cover distorted your image. Or because you were just one of billions who won the award. (In case you missed it, Time selected "You" for the power people gained and used in democratizing the media by creating content for the Internet.)

Maybe it bothers you that you didn't do much to earn the award. Because, despite all the things for which Time says it is honoring "You," odds are you haven't done any of them.

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Time's cover suggests that everyone has played a role in the world's new, dynamic media environment. But its premise is flawed. The evidence shows that only a small percentage of Americans are really contributing to the Web in meaningful ways – or even at all.

Time's cover package is a fanfare to the common man's ability to rise up and be heard in the media world, thanks to new online tools such as blogs, YouTube (a video-sharing site), and Wikipedia (an encyclopedia anyone can edit). There have probably been thousands of pieces like this in recent years saluting what popular blogger Glenn Reynolds calls "An Army of Davids," ordinary people who use technology to "beat big media, big government, and other goliaths."

It's a potentially earthshaking idea: Making everyone into a journalist would mean that a lot of different viewpoints and news would be available. And Time has some reason to honor that concept this year. New Web communications systems, often called Web 2.0, had a big 2006.

After MySpace.com, a social networking website, was bought by News Corp. for $580 million in 2005, YouTube was purchased by Google in 2006 for about $1.7 billion. "User- generated content" is the buzz phrase describing how people are using everything from cellphones to video cameras to feed the Internet's infinite news hole. Yet for all the Web's potential as the great populist leveler in the media world, data show most people aren't really posting content all that much.

Surveys show that about 70 percent of adult Americans have been on the Internet at some point. That's a big number, but what do those people do?

Only 8 percent – about 12 million? – keep a blog, according to a recent survey from the Pew Internet and American Life Project. Of those bloggers, 84 percent blog as a "hobby" or say it's "not something I spend a lot of time on." And 37 percent of them say "their personal experiences" are their primary topic.

A different survey from the same source found that only 26 percent of all Internet users had ever shared personal material such as "artwork, photos, stories, or videos online."

To be fair, other studies that also measure the Web proclivities of users ages 12-18 do show more Net activity, so the potential for growth is there. But looking at YouTube, one can't help but assume a great deal of their time is spent posting amusing video clips. Someone has to put up all those Aqua Teen Hunger Force cartoons.

Some bloggers and video posters are changing the media landscape. Their work is read and viewed by large numbers of people or by movers and shakers in government, business, and the mainstream media. Big bloggers like Mr. Reynolds of Instapundit.com and Markos Moulitsas Zúniga of Dailykos.com, for instance, get hundreds of thousands of visits every day, according to the website www.truthlaidbear.com. Their blogs carry advertisements and they both appear often on mainstream media.

But they are the minority. Of the small percentage of people who actually blog, tens of thousands post to blogs that have an average daily viewership of ... one. In other words, the scope of the Web's populist revolution shouldn't be overstated; it should be understood. Utopians and faddists may want to get lost in the technology's potential. But understanding the reality is more interesting, and ultimately more telling.

What the media revolution and Web 2.0 have really done is create a new and interesting class of media. It's not mainstream – at least not yet – but it certainly isn't "You." It's actually more "Them." And if Time really wants to make "Them" the Person of the Year, then why not? There are worse choices.

As for you, don't feel too bad. You can still proudly display the latest issue of Time, lousy mirror image and all. And don't feel bad if you don't go out and start a blog tomorrow.

If everyone did, who would have time to read it all, anyway?

Dante Chinni, a senior associate at the Project for Excellence in Journalism, writes a twice-monthly column on media issues. E-mail him at Dante Chinni.

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