TIME’s choice for Person of the Year is kept under wraps even inside the newsroom. So it was only a few weeks before my first POY closed that I told a larger group of colleagues that the choice for 2006 was “You”—user-generated content. The cover would have reflective Mylar on it so readers could see themselves. The idea was that in the age of emerging social media, content creators were changing the world. At that meeting, a writer with a well-deserved reputation as a contrarian said to me, “You know you’re going to be mocked for this.” I respected his candor, but I shrugged it off.
Read the Original Story: You (Yes, You) Are TIME’s Person of the Year
Well, he wasn’t wrong. The New York Daily News wrote that it was one of the 10 most controversial POY covers in history, right up there next to Stalin and Hitler. Jon Stewart held up a picture of me holding the cover and mimicked me looking in the mirror. Frank Rich in the New York Times called it a “stunt” and said it might sink TIME. Countless college seniors wrote at the end of their résumés, “TIME Person of the Year, 2006.” That still makes me laugh.
But think about it: This was 2006, not long after Facebook launched. MySpace was huge. YouTube was a year old. Twitter, Instagram, and Snapchat didn’t exist. It was the start of a revolution that has made user-generated content the foundation of the world’s media. Instead of the few creating for the many, the many now create for one another. The idea was and still is a radical one. If I got anything wrong, it was in not anticipating the downside of this new information calculus, the rise of hate speech and disinformation, and how a democratized system could be used against the very idea of democracy. I still think that the benefits outweigh the costs—and that the future of the media still depends on, well, You.
Stengel, a former editor of TIME, is the author of Information Wars: How We Lost the Global Battle Against Disinformation
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