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

Share

"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.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Maths Teacher

£110 - £200 per day: Randstad Education Leeds: Secondary Maths Teacher for spe...

Business Analyst - Surrey - Permanent - Up to £50k DOE

£40000 - £50000 Per Annum Excellent benefits: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd:...

***ASP.NET Developer - Cheshire - £35k - Permanent***

£30000 - £35000 Per Annum Excellent benefits: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd:...

***Solutions Architect*** - Brighton - £40k - Permanent

£35000 - £40000 Per Annum Excellent benefits: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd:...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

Taking on Ukip requires a delicate balancing act for both main parties

Andrew Grice
Today is a bigger Shabbes than usual in the Jewish world because it has been chosen to launch the Shabbos Project  

Shabbes exerts a pull on all Jews, and today is bigger than ever

Howard Jacobson
Wilko Johnson, now the bad news: musician splits with manager after police investigate assault claims

Wilko Johnson, now the bad news

Former Dr Feelgood splits with manager after police investigate assault claims
Mark Udall: The Democrat Senator with a fight on his hands ahead of the US midterm elections

Mark Udall: The Democrat Senator with a fight on his hands

The Senator for Colorado is for gay rights, for abortion rights – and in the Republicans’ sights as they threaten to take control of the Senate next month
New discoveries show more contact between far-flung prehistoric humans than had been thought

New discoveries show more contact between far-flung prehistoric humans than had been thought

Evidence found of contact between Easter Islanders and South America
Cerys Matthews reveals how her uncle taped 150 interviews for a biography of Dylan Thomas

Cerys Matthews on Dylan Thomas

The singer reveals how her uncle taped 150 interviews for a biography of the famous Welsh poet
DIY is not fun and we've finally realised this as a nation

Homebase closures: 'DIY is not fun'

Homebase has announced the closure of one in four of its stores. Nick Harding, who never did know his awl from his elbow, is glad to see the back of DIY
The Battle of the Five Armies: Air New Zealand releases new Hobbit-inspired in-flight video

Air New Zealand's wizard in-flight video

The airline has released a new Hobbit-inspired clip dubbed "The most epic safety video ever made"
Pumpkin spice is the flavour of the month - but can you stomach the sweetness?

Pumpkin spice is the flavour of the month

The combination of cinnamon, clove, nutmeg (and no actual pumpkin), now flavours everything from lattes to cream cheese in the US
11 best sonic skincare brushes

11 best sonic skincare brushes

Forget the flannel - take skincare to the next level by using your favourite cleanser with a sonic facial brush
Paul Scholes column: I'm not worried about Manchester United's defence - Chelsea test can be the making of Phil Jones and Marcos Rojo

Paul Scholes column

I'm not worried about Manchester United's defence - Chelsea test can be the making of Jones and Rojo
Frank Warren: Boxing has its problems but in all my time I've never seen a crooked fight

Frank Warren: Boxing has its problems but in all my time I've never seen a crooked fight

While other sports are stalked by corruption, we are an easy target for the critics
Jamie Roberts exclusive interview: 'I'm a man of my word – I'll stay in Paris'

Jamie Roberts: 'I'm a man of my word – I'll stay in Paris'

Wales centre says he’s not coming home but is looking to establish himself at Racing Métro
How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?

A crime that reveals London's dark heart

How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?
Meet 'Porridge' and 'Vampire': Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker

Lost in translation: Western monikers

Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker. Simon Usborne, who met a 'Porridge' and a 'Vampire' while in China, can see the problem
Handy hacks that make life easier: New book reveals how to rid your inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone

Handy hacks that make life easier

New book reveals how to rid your email inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone with a loo-roll
KidZania lets children try their hands at being a firefighter, doctor or factory worker for the day

KidZania: It's a small world

The new 'educational entertainment experience' in London's Shepherd's Bush will allow children to try out the jobs that are usually undertaken by adults, including firefighter, doctor or factory worker