The blogosphere was atwitter this weekend about Time magazine declaring “You” as their Person of the Year, essentially for all of your generous user-generated content contributions. Atwitter yet skeptical, branding it a sign of a bubble top, demolishing Time’s breathless explanation that “this time it is different”, invoking the lesser-known Time equivalent of the Sports Illustrated cover jinx and generally belittling Time as irrelevant (in seemingly every other comment), anachronistic, confused and/or self-absorbed.
It seems to me the product of quintessential old media’s long gaze over the precipice. They want to make lemonade out of their own industry nightmare. I can’t imagine most Time subscribers have any idea what they are talking about. Who do you know under 50 that reads Time? “You” generally don’t read Time.
But my real topic is the second word in Time’s headline: “You control the Information Age”. The moguls of old media at Time and elsewhere may see their control slipping away, but “you” aren’t exactly taking up the reins. “You” don’t really control anything. Sure, you can blog, upload, review, Digg, collaborate, communicate and participate to your heart’s content, but that isn’t control. “You are the feedstock of the Information Age” might be more apt.
Your participation is limited to the confines of individual sites. Like inmates in a minimum security prison, you can wander the grounds and interact with the other prisoners, but ultimately there is a fence. Your friends have to be inmates of the same institution or they really can’t be your friends. The wardens do take pains to emphasize how much better minimum security is than solitary confinement (add that to the Web 2.0 definitional sweepstakes). But in practice our lives are strewn across multiple sites, we have almost no control across them and therefore no control of our lives. The warden’s response of course is you should just give up all those other sites and put your life in one place for the convenience. Not the control solution I’m looking for.
Roach motels for data abound. Your data checks in. Just try to check out. Web API’s are a step in the right direction, but the exception rather than the rule and will be as long have they collide with the business interests of the wardens. And that’s just the explicit data. The real game is not “your” data but rather the data about “you”. Where you go on the Web, what you’re interested in, what you buy and what you might buy. See just how much control “you” have when you want to inspect, amend or delete this data about “you”.
Vast investments are being made in even better collection and correlation of data about “you”. Sure, some of this investment will be diverted to new tennis courts and slightly better food in the prison cafeteria. But as nice as it is, your data and relationships are still incarcerated. “You” are plied with the digital equivalent of bread and circuses: “Ooh, look, an AJAXian map”. TAC is the new “walking-around” money, and “you” get considerably less than your favorite BigCo gets for their user-generated content. Meanwhile pay no attention to all the personal metadata behind the curtain.
“Your” enthusiasm for transparency doesn’t seem to extend to the underlying economics. What kind of ad revenue was actually generated? What was “your” percentage and how was it determined? How was it targeted? What exactly do these systems know about “you”? Do “you” have a Big Brother? There is a lot of money at stake here. Tens of billions going to hundreds of billions in the coming decade. It is worth remembering there is no free lunch, whether it is served on a plate or as an ad-supported service.
YouTube is the poster child of the Time piece and is instructive. Generally, others won’t pay $1.6 billion for something “you” control. Someone is confused about who controls what and my guess is it is “you” (or at least Time magazine speaking for “you”).
“You” don’t have to be a sharecropper in the Information Age (between the time I wrote this and am getting around to posting I notice Nick Carr has since posted a similar riff, even using the sharecropper metaphor. Note to self: publish faster AND more frequently).
But there is hope. Just as computing moved away from a centralized model and power and control devolved to the individual, so too will control of the Internet shift for real to the individual. It might even turn the Internet on its head. Hopefully Time will still be around to see their headline come to pass.