Michael Bywater: Could the real you log on, please?

Thanks to YouTube and MySpace, this was the year we could all be famous for five minutes

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"It's for You-ooh!" If the phrase merely recalls the Hunchback of Notre Dame in the 1980s BT ad, you're missing out on something. What you're missing out on is a major honour: you have been named Time magazine's Person of the Year. You have. You and me and Russell "if you can't say it in a 30-second soundbite, it's not worth saying" Brand, Ronaldinho and Zidane cartoons, the milkman, Tila Tequila, Sandi Thom, and, yes, even David Cameron, video blogger, subsequently blonstered ("You want my wife? Not a problem") by that well-known family man Sion Simon, doing neither of them any harm at all. And even, even Rupert Murdoch.

And me. And, of course, you. But there's a catch. The award is made to us as we are on the internet. Our public private lives, Our shared videos, our blogs and MySpace profiles and re-edits of The Big Lebowski excluding everything that isn't the word... well, you can imagine what the word is. The Time Person of the Year (an honour shared, among others, with Hitler, it being given to the most influential for good or ill) is, really, You Online, and if we were of an apocalyptic turn of mind, or even just fascinated by one of the most extraordinary phenomena in history, we might say we have reached a turning point.

The BT ad is curiously relevant. "Pick up the phone and show someone you care about them" was the not so subtle message, but there were two other messages in there, too. First, the phone call was about them: the person on the other end of the phone. It required both parties to be there at the time - remember when there were only two outcomes to a phone call? Someone answered, or they didn't? - and it was strictly a one-to-one channel of communication.

The internet changed that years ago, allowing us to time-shift our communications with email and forum postings and "SIGs" - special interest groups. But they were not revolutionary; they weren't enabling technologies, but facilitating ones. They let us do something we could already do - write letters, form clubs, send out newsletters - but do it more easily. But what has happened since is an enabling technology. "Social networks" - sites such as YouTube, bought for $1.65 bn (£842m) in October by Google, just 20 months after it was founded, in the inevitable garage, by Steve Chen and Chad Hurley; sites such as MySpace, bought in July 2005 by Rupert Murdoch for a mere $580m; and a plethora of others: FaceBook, Friendster, Flickr, LinkedIn, Tribe, Xanga. They come and go; some succeed, others die. Web 2.0 is evolution in action.

Web 2.0. Ask anyone what it actually means and you'll get a lot of umming and ah-ing and waving around of arms. Then they'll say: "Well, YouTube and MySpace and blogs and, er, podcasting and, you know, stuff."

The term was allegedly coined by media guru Tim O'Reilly, shortly after the dot-com bubble burst in 2001. It was originally set out as a series of oppositions which would mean little or nothing to anyone outside the technorati (a term which itself is, half-ironically, the name for the most popular, and coveted, blog grading and aggregating site on the web). Web 2.0 wouldn't be Britannica Online but Wikipedia; not personal "home pages" but blogging; not domain names but search engines; not publishing but participation; not taxonomy but "folksonomy". Perhaps the central prediction was that Web 2.0 wouldn't be like Microsoft or Netscape or indeed News International; it would be Google, the search engine company founded by Larry Page and Sergey Brin in 1998 in , yes, a garage.

The Google paradigm was simple, yet it changed the web from being something halfway between creationism and "intelligent design" to being a truly Darwinian environment: when you searched for something, the Google results were ranked according to how many other pages had linked to them. If information is about making connections, then the information which will survive best is the information - the connections - which can go forth and multiply. The Google system was susceptible to being rigged by "link farms" which spawned thousands or millions of spurious links to fool the Google spiders as they crawled around the web. Google and the riggers tried to stay one step ahead of each other, a battle fought mostly in the background but occasionally becoming visible when, for example, on the forum of, say, a railway enthusiasts' group, a flurry of postings talking nonsense interspersed with links to porn or Viagra sites would suddenly appear: so-called "comment spam", put there by SpamBots which sneak about the web looking for open comment pages and infecting them.

But this, too, was a Darwinian environment. Mutate and succeed. And it was a long, long way from what netizens call MSM: the "mainstream media". There - or here, since this newspaper is an example of MSM - access was tightly controlled; editors would commission, writers would write and rewrite; a proprietor or board would oversee the operation, which, in most cases, was designed not to deliver material to the reader or viewer, but to deliver the reader or viewer to the advertisers, who, in turn, would pay for the operation. A virtuous circle? Generally, and with reservations, yes. It works. But evolution doesn't care whether something works. It doesn't "care" about anything. All it does is reward things that work better, in the environment in which they find themselves. And what worked better, in what we used to call "cyberspace" was ... you.

If the telephone call was about them and the MSM about us (where "us" was Carlton TV or News International or whatever company was making money for its owner or shareholders), then Web 2.0 was about me and about you. Control and focus had shifted. If you read my blog, then I would succeed that bit more, reproduce that bit more. As it's not only a publishing but also a communications network, individual content could spread virally, by email contagion. "Have you seen this?" in an email, followed by a link, was the net's equivalent of reproductive success, so that an 80-year-old man - Peter, aka geriatric1927 on YouTube - could become the third most subscribed video series of all time as he sits there talking. Who would have predicted that Judson Laipply, a balding guy in jeans and a T-shirt, could have got, when I last looked, 2,264,771 viewers for his Evolution of Dance on YouTube: five minutes of magnificent pastiche of disco dancing from Elvis to the present day - roughly the same as the viewing figures for Sky TV's magnificent, £6m adaptation of Terry Pratchett's The Hogfather. Who would have predicted that a fat guy dancing in his chair to a Romanian gay boy band would have swept the world? (Google "numa numa" if you haven't seen it.)

Thomas Davenport argued in his 2001 book The Attention Economy that our attention is the currency everyone is fighting for. Some succeed enough to migrate into different environments: Zoe Margolis, writing a blog about her sex life called Girl with a One-Track Mind under the name Abby Lee, won an award at the 2006 Bloggies, broke out of the blogosphere, escaped into capitivity as a book, and went straight into the bestseller lists.

Lily Allen - voted third coolest person of this year by NME - angered her record company but massively upped her credibility and her fan base by uploading her music to MySpace. In a world as viral and tribal as pop music, You - Person of the Year - hold the key. Sometimes, like Allen, They are also You. Sometimes - as in the case of the Arctic Monkeys - You do it on your own: the fan club set up on MySpace propelled them to success, but they themselves "actually had no idea what [MySpace] was". They do now, as do Gnarls Barkley.

At the level of accidental celebrity, an entirely obscure Turk from Izmir called Mahir Cagri became the internet's darling a few years ago with his distinctly Web 1.0 website... and then, by the classically Darwinian mechanism of replication-with-mutation, turned into the multimillion-dollar figure of Borat. And most of these people are, in one way or another, you. Their prominence is not due to massive advertising, hype, or even the ability to get past the gatekeepers of the MSM. The gatekeepers are still there but the walls have come down.

There are concerns that we are promoting a culture of individual celebrity; but of course we are: we are all celebrities in our own lives; it's just that few of us ever get anyone else to acknowledge it; concerns that the boundary between reality and quaint old cyberspace are blurring; concerns of a sleazy underworld funded by Demon Murdoch, when Tom Stephens, who spent some time locked up on suspicion of being the Ipswich murderer (though currently not charged, but released on bail) turned out to have a MySpace page in which he called himself "The Bishop" and spoke of looking for dating.

Saul Steinberg was almost right in his cartoon: the dog in front of the computer saying "On the internet, nobody knows you're a dog". The truth is, on the internet you aren't a dog. You - You, the Time Person of the Year 2006 - are whoever you want to be.

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