Time magazine’s issue of May 6, 1946, featured famed horse-breeder and makeup-magnate Elizabeth Arden Graham on its cover. The day the magazine hit the newsstands, Graham’s stable burned to the ground, killing 22 thoroughbreds. The tragedy confirmed what the public had suspected since the early 1930s: To have your picture on the front page of the popular newsweekly was to be cursed. Whom the gods would destroy they first put on Time’s cover.
In a cruel trick, Time this week saddles all of us with its notorious “cover jinx.” The magazine has announced its Man of the Year for 2006, and He is You. To illustrate its choice, Time puts on its cover a picture of a computer screen with a mirrored mylar finish. Look at it and you see yourself.
To what do we owe this dicey honor? To Web 2.0, of course. Thanks to the Internet, writes Time’s top editor, Rick Stengel, “the creators and consumers of user-generated content are transforming art and politics and commerce.” They are “the engaged citizens of a new digital democracy.” The mirror on the cover “literally reflects the idea that you, not we, are transforming the information age.”
Web 2.0 is battering the Great Man theory of history, writes Lev Grossman in the cover story. Yes, Great Men continue to be responsible for “the many painful and disturbing things that happened in 2006” – from war to global warming to the PlayStation 3 shortage – but “look at 2006 through a different lens and you’ll see another story, one that isn’t about conflict or great men. It’s a story about community and collaboration on a scale never seen before … It’s about the many wresting power from the few and helping one another for nothing and how that will not only change the world, but also change the way the world changes.”
Also part of the cover package is a fawning profile of YouTube founders Chad Hurley and Steve Chen. The duo, proclaims Time, are the “the new demiurges of the online world.” Demiurges? Someone might want to tell Lev Grossman that the Great Man theory is still alive and well in the pages of Time.
But it’s the cover, really, that contains the subtlest thinking in the issue. Web 2.0, writes Grossman, provides “a chance for people to look at a computer screen and really, genuinely wonder who’s out there looking back at them.” The cover gives Grossman’s words a wry twist, offering a much darker view of the radical personalization of culture. Peer into the cover’s computer screen and all you see looking back at you is you. In a solipsistic world, every Lonely Girl is a Great Man. The curse of Time is democratized.