You Can't Spell TIME Without 'I' and 'Me'!

How my self-obsessed writing changed journalism

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Photo-illustration by John Ueland for TIME

When I first got to TIME Magazine in 1997, a small number of people did not enjoy my particular style of writing. Unfortunately, most of these people worked in my office. Or subscribed to TIME. So, really, a small number compared with the population of earth but a pretty big number compared with the amount of people who read my articles.

Not only did a website chart the number of times I used me, I and my each week, but a reporter in TIME's Los Angeles bureau tacked one of my articles to her door, riddled with circles and angry scribblings about the death of the magazine. A 2000 New York Times profile about me said my columns "focus on three topics: himself, his life and his deep, private, personal thoughts." In one of the greatest moments of my life, I was flown first class from New York to L.A. by a television studio to work on a sitcom pilot about my life, and a former SPORTS ILLUSTRATED model who was also on the flight asked to switch seats so she could sit by me. The man who agreed to switch was Gore Vidal, and when I told him I knew a friend of his who worked for TIME, he ranted about how the editor had ruined the magazine by hiring egocentric young people who write only about themselves. I nodded vigorously and thought, Gore Vidal is talking about me!

Thirteen years later and 13 years wiser, I reflect on that criticism and think, I won! All bloggers write in first person, spending hours each day chronicling their anger at their kids for taking away their free time. Every Facebook update and tweet is sophomoric, solipsistic, snarky and other words I've learned by Googling myself.

Psychology professor Jean Twenge, whose book The Narcissism Epidemic I love largely because it mentions me, says we are living in the Age of Individualism, a radical philosophical shift that began with Freud. This phenomenon hit a tipping point in the 1960s and exploded in the past 10 years with reality television, Facebook, blogging and me. "You're supposed to craft your own image and have a personal brand. That was unheard of 10 years ago," says Twenge. Data that track people's need for social approval show we care less and less about whether others think we're proper, polite or considerate. "There was a battle between acting the way people expect and 'Just be yourself,' and 'Just be yourself' won," she said. "'You shouldn't care what anyone else thinks of you' is something commonly told to teenagers. What would the world be like if we really didn't care what people thought of us?" I am afraid to imagine a world in which people don't care if others think they look hot in their Facebook bikini photos.

When Twenge e-mailed her co-author, University of North Carolina psychology professor W. Keith Campbell, about how self-revelation had changed journalism, he wrote back, "It's now expected that writers of journalism insert themselves in stories. I know that Joel has a wife named something like Calliope who is a hippie and that Joel lives in Hollywood, has a kid and makes something like $287,000 a year. I don't need to know any of this. But I feel closer to Joel than if I didn't." Cassandra clearly has some work to do branding herself.

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