×

You have to hand it to Time magazine: The issue grabs you.

I’m talking about the mag’s annual person of the year cover Dec. 25, which went to YOU, as in the collective you of the YouTube and MySpace generation.

The point being, I suppose, that in 2006, younger folks came into their own as masters of their own consumer choices. So much so that they are collectively throwing monkey wrenches into the plans of established media players — and impacting their bottom lines.

Being part of the old media, it’s hard not to suspect that this further democratization of the media is overhyped: It’s great that everybody gets a crack at blogging, podcasting, uploading their own videos and downloading their favorite songs, but it’s unclear how much the mainstream culture needs to quake in its boots because of such activities.

In terms of how much the ‘Net Generation of gizmo-gourmands will eventually enrich society as a whole, the jury is still out. (A recent poll indicates that a majority of college students’ declared goal in life is to make money — not, as it was 25 years ago, to make the world a better place. That doesn’t necessarily bode well for any of us.)

Maybe I’m just hopelessly benighted, but I felt more empathy with Queen Elizabeth’s annual Christmas message to her subjects than with the Time cover: She lamented how little intergenerational dialogue there is these days. And I was thinking, How could it be so, when so many kids are constantly plugged into whatever gizmo their parents have forked out for rather than encouraged to talk to other human beings in the same room?

From a marketing point of view, however, the Time choice was singularly inspired: A Mylar-ed computer screen design reflects the face of whomever looks at it, just as a mirror would. Talk about encouraging an impulse newsstand buy. It’s much more intriguing than the mag’s 1982 computer cover, which featured a generic worker sitting in front of a monitor.

The current choice has sparked buzz, if not the controversy that accompanied the 1979 cover that featured Ayatollah Khomeini’s mug and spurred many folks to cancel their subscriptions. (Time has shied away from provocative covers ever since.)

There are ironies in this year’s cover choice.

For one thing, it is the print media that has suffered the most because of the YouTube phenom. In this respect the cover could be seen as pandering to the youth constituency, with the newsmag trying to reposition itself as a cool destination.

Amusingly, “The Daily Show’s” Jon Stewart, one of those hip alternative news sources, wasn’t himself amused, referring to the Time selection as “a joke.”

From another point of view, the cover choice may signal a shift away from the view that individuals are the prime shapers of history — nonsense in a year when so many figures (Iran’s Mahmoud Ahmedjinejad, North Korea’s Kim Jong Il, President Bush) did make a considerable impact, for good or ill, on world events.

That view of the key role of personalities in history predominated at the magazine for 80-odd years, ever since Charles Lindbergh was featured on the first cover in 1927. The only other generic recipients were “The Under-25 Generation” in 1966 — OK, I was pleased with such a choice back then, as I was again in 1975 when “American Women” graced the issue. (The only other inanimate choice was “Endangered Earth” in 1988.)

It could be argued that the choice of YOU is another indication of just how myopically American-centric U.S. information outlets have become in the past several decades. How can a cover be devoted to this group when more than half the world’s people don’t even have a computer?

To be fair to the legions of thoughtful folk out there in cyberspace, many of whom called Time’s choice “lame,” they voted online for much less frivolous candidates: Hugo Chavez came in first.