The other day I listened to a reader named Tom, age 59, make a pitch for the American Voter as TIME's Person of the Year. Tom wasn't sitting in my office but was home in Stamford, Conn., where he recorded his video and uploaded it to YouTube. In fact, Tom was answering my own video, which I'd posted on YouTube a couple of weeks earlier, asking for people to submit nominations for Person of the Year. Within a few days, it had tens of thousands of page views and dozens of video submissions and comments. The people who sent in nominations were from Australia and Paris and Duluth, and their suggestions included Sacha Baron Cohen, Donald Rumsfeld, Al Gore and many, many votes for the YouTube guys.
This response was the living example of the idea of our 2006 Person of the Year: that individuals are changing the nature of the information age, that the creators and consumers of user-generated content are transforming art and politics and commerce, that they are the engaged citizens of a new digital democracy. From user-generated images of Baghdad strife and the London Underground bombing to the macaca moment that might have altered the midterm elections to the hundreds of thousands of individual outpourings of hope and poetry and self-absorption, this new global nervous system is changing the way we perceive the world. And the consequences of it all are both hard to know and impossible to overestimate.
There are lots of people in my line of work who believe that this phenomenon is dangerous because it undermines the traditional authority of media institutions like TIME. Some have called it an "amateur hour." And it often is. But America was founded by amateurs. The framers were professional lawyers and military men and bankers, but they were amateur politicians, and that's the way they thought it should be. Thomas Paine was in effect the first blogger, and Ben Franklin was essentially loading his persona into the MySpace of the 18th century, Poor Richard's Almanack. The new media age of Web 2.0 is threatening only if you believe that an excess of democracy is the road to anarchy. I don't.
Journalists once had the exclusive province of taking people to places they'd never been. But now a mother in Baghdad with a videophone can let you see a roadside bombing, or a patron in a nightclub can show you a racist rant by a famous comedian. These blogs and videos bring events to the rest of us in ways that are often more immediate and authentic than traditional media. These new techniques, I believe, will only enhance what we do as journalists and challenge us to do it in even more innovative ways.