Time magazine has posted its third annual list of the 25 most influential people on the internet. It’s of course a ridiculous idea, yet it’s telling because, as a totally subjective construction, it reveals what Time Magazine — a mass-market medium — wants us to think the internet is about.
#1 is Chrissy Teigen. Time likes her because she’s a mass-media star who has lots of Internet followers but who has remained “relatable” and “real.” The message is that the Internet lets us be more of who we are than the old media did. The internet is a channel for authenticity. Something like that. Also, who doesn’t love Chrissy Teigen?
#2 takes us from mainstream goody to meanstream baddy: Matt Drudge. Time tars him with the Trump brush and mentions one particular piece of irresponsible reporting. See, the Internet also lets bad information prosper. Lesson: Time does responsible, even-handed journalism.
The net lets us reveal — and be — more of who we are.
#3 is J.K. Rowling because the internet lets the famous use their celebrity to take on meanstream baddies like Drudge. See, there’s your fair and balanced right there! Also, please refer back to #1: The net lets us reveal — and be — more of who we are.
#4 is Carter Wilkinson, who asked people to retweet a tweet 18 million times so Wendy’s would give him free chicken nuggets for a year — a powerful impressions per nugget ratio for Wendy’s. We failed Carter, but he got his nuggets anyway after breaking the world’s record for retweets. So, apparently the internet lets The Little Folk become celebrities for doing what the Little Folk do. Lesson: The Net is trivial, but fun! (By the way, do you have to be a vegetarian to find the idea of eating “nuggets” about as repulsive as eating “clumps”?
#5 is Yao Chen, the politically-outspoken Chinese actress. Lesson: The internet is about peace and freedom, everybody! Also, mean governments threaten it.
Time goes heavy on the positives (Steve Pruitt, who has made over two million edits to Wikipedia; Jonathan Sun who is funny and kind on Twitter) and very light on the flat-out, moustache-twirling malefactors who could easily have painted the internet as a den of vipers hidden inside a gingerbread house papered with porn. Plus, Time‘s list is diverse. The message overall is that the net lets the mainstream be more authentic, and lets authentic voices emerge from out of the crowd. In these dreary days of reflexive internet bashing, we should be grateful for that as the list’s take-away. Time‘s list makes nice with the internet as if it were 1999, and I say huzzah!
But, there is also something unfortunately 1999-ish about any Top 25 list for the internet. Back then, the mainstream media still viewed the internet primarily through their own mass-market publishing lens. That made it look like a zero-cost broadcast medium: Anyone could become a singer with a massive following, an internationally-known journalist, a political figure to be reckoned with. That was and is true, but it misses what is genuinely revolutionary about the net: It supplements the old model of one-to-many broadcasting with many-to-many networks of human conversation and interaction.
Since 1999, the Internet has encroached ever more seriously on the mass market. It increasingly is where the traditional media make their primary home, and where big time stars are born. Any “Most Influential” internet list inevitably reinforces the idea that the Internet’s significance is as a one-to-many broadcasting platform. But suppose the internet’s influence on us has less to do with how people become famous than with how we find and engage with one another? The social effects may be harder to see because they are the ocean we swim in, but that also makes them more significant.
In fact, the internet is, well, a network, yet Time notices only individuals.
A true list of the web’s biggest influencers should include those who build the platforms and services of engagement. It should include those who defend the open Internet against the commercial services that want to control it for their own selfish reasons. It should include the organizations that try to keep us informed, skeptical, and more open to new ideas than the old media and our own base inclinations do. In fact, the internet is, well, a network, yet Time notices only individuals. Where are the communities, the networks, the crowds that make places like Tumblr support groups, Color of Change, Stackoverflow, and GlobalVoices important in our lives in different ways?
Most important, suppose the truly transformative impact of the Net comes from the cumulative effect of billions of acts of kindness, openness, and creativity. Where are the people who provide the comfort and encouragement that make the place better for all of us? Where are the quirky hobbyists, the game modders and writers of fan fiction who make the gifts of culture reflect more of who we really are, the people who burrow deeply into topics most of us have never heard of, the software developers building libraries that liberate onrushes of creativity, the people with terrible ideas that spark great ones, the activists toiling in places that want to crush them, the geeks giving us ways to route around the privateers, the patient explainers, the memers who incite us, the wise-asses who make us laugh?
Of course, of course, of course, the internet is also replete with bullies, scammers, and a-holes of every description, not to mention the winged bots obeying wicked witches from every quadrant of the earth. But I agree with Time that a Top 25 list is not a scientific attempt at rendering an objective accounting, but a chance to calibrate our understanding of the net around what is best about it.
And what’s best about the net are not the Top Few, but our voices mingling with others who are not broadcasting, but are conversing, sharing, and creating.