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December 21, 2006

Digital proletarianism

Time Magazine's Person of the Year: You

Congratulations to us all

Time Magazine Cover - The Person of the Year: You

Time Magazine nominated The Person of the Year: You. The cover story, under the sub-headline "In 2006, the World Wide Web became a tool for bringing together the small contributions of millions of people and making them matter"1 begins like this:

The "Great Man" theory of history is usually attributed to the Scottish philosopher Thomas Carlyle, who wrote that "the history of the world is but the biography of great men." He believed that it is the few, the powerful and the famous who shape our collective destiny as a species. That theory took a serious beating this year.

We're doing great

We're writing the history now, guys. You. Me. The next guy. Let's start petting each other's back now: we finally pulled this off — killing excellence and replacing it with mediocrity — we’re doing great.

We're writing blogs by the million, which hardly rise above the level of newspaper personals in terms of editorial quality. We're the masters of one-proposition analysis and the copy-paste content creation.

We're writing the history now, guys. You. Me. The next guy.

We've made YouTube great. When in doubt look at the list of most viewed videos of all time: it's nothing but a garish pile of cheap entertainment. Trash. After we're done with our world changing the Academy Awards night will look just like that unworthy YouTube page.

Then we've made Flickr a "tool for bringing together the small contributions of millions of people and making them matter." Most popular tags? "Party" and "wedding."

We're building MySpace together, probably the ugliest "metropolis" on the face of the web, a cacophonous "ad-infested chaos"2 that cultivates commodified, mass friendship.

We're demolishing language by eliminating grammar in our Yahoo! Messenger chat sessions while we grow utterly incapable to express feelings in writing without using emoticons.

We're actively undermining knowledge creation and talent by giving a voice to the ill-intended dilettantes: I see designers with embarrassingly weak portfolios criticizing work signed by the grand masters, morons ranking art movies they cannot possibly grasp, reputable leaders being subject to losers' public ridicule and barbarians vandalizing Wikipedia3.

We're pushing things off-balance in the knowledge climate just as we did in the physical one.

Confusing the value created by the entrepreneurs, the corporations and the extraordinary individuals who build the Web with the ordinary user is just like confusing the director, the screenwriter and the leading actors with the swarms of popcorn-munching moviegoers. Let us not delude ourselves: the elites are producing far more value than the average Joe — the Internet is great because of them.

"Lowest common denominator wins out"

This digital freedom may nurture value creation, but it can also cultivate decadence. Says Andy Rutledge in his post Anti-Social Media on Design View:

"Excellence is not the sum of opinions. Excellence is not born of consensus. Excellence is by its very nature something far outside the average." Andy Rutledge

The wisdom of crowds and the related ideals cited above are largely about championing and cultivating two things: mediocrity and decadence. Don’t believe me? Well, perhaps you’re too distracted with the intended result of the social media movement; so many of us are. We should be paying more attention to the inevitable results of the specific actions and mechanisms employed. Intent is a worthless fantasy. Let’s concentrate on facts and results.

Mediocrity is the only possible result of a wide sampling of opinion or input. The only idea that can survive such a mechanism is one consistent with the lowest common denominator. The mob works to ensure that all other results are weeded out. Now, we might think that it is the highest common denominator that is promoted in this environment, but it’s just not so. The “highest” anything is largely held by the masses as being discriminatory and elitist. So only the lowest common denominator wins out. The point is that in this sort of environment excellence does not survive.

A sad victory

I am the Person of the Year, but this renders me rather miserable because I won by cheating: as a content creator on this blog I won by being compared to those who create nothing, not to the legitimate benchmark, to "the great men"4. What a sad victory it is.

The West has no clue what happens when history ceases to be "the biography of great men" and turns into the biography of average proletarian. Here, in the post-communist Eastern Europe, we do.

1 The explanation for this is horrible: "If you choose an individual, you have to justify how that person affected millions of people," said Richard Stengel, who took over as Time's managing editor earlier this year. "But if you choose millions of people, you don't have to justify it to anyone."

2 "MySpace: A Place for Dolts", Kuro5hin

3 See "Brandient on Wikipedia" on my old blog.

4 For the sake of the argument let's compare blogosphere content quality to The Economist, Financial Times, The National Geographic, The New Yorker, BBC and the likes and see wether we like the outcome.

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