Media Person of the Year: All Over but the Shouting

FTR-2-All Over but the Shouting

Carving the Media Person of the Year in stone

When you ask people: Who had the biggest impact on media last year? Who changed the rules we all play by? Who opened our eyes? Who was the Person of the Year in media? many respond, without a moment's hesitation, Barack Obama.

We didn't necessarily agree (though we did agree that he was the Media Client of the Year, and named him such in January). Then there are those who look at who ran Obama's flawless campaign, using so many new tools for the first time, and making the most of the old ones. Who coordinated that effort, spent more on media than many consumer goods brands did last year, and showed many marketers how to connect with audiences in meaningful ways on the Web and with mobile?

Those people say: Then, the Person of the Year has to be Plouffe or Axelrod. Obama was the brand. And the brand was a problem those guys and their teams had to solve - and a nightmare from a marketing standpoint. A candidate with a funny first name, the middle name Hussein and a surname dangerously close to Osama. Well, one of the things Plouffe and Axelrod did - aside from managing an already copiously lauded mobilizing cross-media campaign that encompassed everything from Super Bowl commercials to text messages, of course - was find the right guy to make the posters.

And so we briefly considered Shepard Fairey, the artist who created the "Hope" campaign posters, and not only because he'd illustrated Time's person of the year cover (of you know who) and we like things to come full circle. The once-renegade-cum-commercial artist first came to prominence after he began stickering urban areas as part of an art project and scrambled a close-up of professional wrestler Andre the Giant (which had been appropriated, incidentally, for you fair-use watchers), propagandist graphic design, guerrilla street art and the philosophy of Heidegger to stage what Fairey called an experiment in phenomenology, defined by Heidegger as "the process of letting things manifest themselves."

He was then a young graphic arts student at the Rhode Island School of Design, and what he started on a lark as something of a prank became the basis for his career. It was anti-art that's been exhibited in galleries. Images with no message that looked exactly like classic propaganda. Works perceived as anti-consumerist that were plastered on apparel people could buy at Urban Outfitters. He's always played with people's notions of what his work was and has tried to show them their surroundings in a new light. As Fairey explained in his 1990 "manifesto" about the OBEY Giant stickers: "Because people are not used to seeing advertisements or propaganda for which the product or motive is not obvious, frequent and novel encounters with the sticker provoke thought and possible frustration, nevertheless revitalizing the viewer's perception and attention to detail. The sticker has no meaning but exists only to cause people to react, to contemplate and search for meaning in the sticker." Fans and critics alike can debate the merits of his work as much as they want, saying he sold out when obey T-shirts were on racks in Bloomingdales, or that he hasn't remained true to his values, but even those first stickers weren't about enforcing meaning. They weren't about anything except your reaction to them. In a way, yes, Fairey was the perfect choice to illustrate a political campaign.

And we considered him as MPOTY because he took advertising design and questioned it, without ever destroying it. "Many stickers have been peeled down by people who were annoyed by them, considering them an eye sore and an act of petty vandalism," Fairey wrote in 1990, "which is ironic considering the number of commercial graphic images everyone in American society is assaulted with daily." Which makes his current turn all the more either enlightening or befuddling, depending on your reaction, of course.

Most recently, his Studio Number One designed the bags, signage and catalogs at Saks Fifth Avenue this spring for what Saks termed "an artist takeover." Emblazoned with the tag "Want It!" in stark black and red, they look every bit as Soviet-era subversive as anything for which Fairey's ever been arrested for sticking on a city building. But, characteristically, Fairey says it doesn't mean anything. "I'm not interested in speaking to a small group," he says. We didn't pick him either.

But what about someone who defines our times, as dismal an epoch as it may currently be? That was when a (literally) crazy thought entered our heads: Sam Zell. Time magazine once named Hitler (and Stalin - twice - and Nixon in 1972), we reasoned. But why single Zell out? After all, he might be broadly symbolic of the dying house of print, but the list of teetering old-guard media titans is far too long: Sulzberger. Karmazin. Newhouse. Even Murdoch could be in for a drubbing. He took up the Bancroft's albatross, is swallowing up local papers across the land, and with Peter Chernin gone (whose anti-print instinct was rumored to have caused his exit) the Rupe's soft spot for ink-stained hands could wound his empire. If these guys are like the delusional family in Chekhov's "The Cherry Orchard" - stubbornly refusing to come to the realization that they have to let their estate go because its time is past, insisting against all rational thought that they'll be able to pay the interest next week - then Zell is the obstreperous, arm-waving vulgarian who is in for as big a hit as they.

Of the bunch, Zell is the most insane, the most loathsome - storming the offices of the Tribune Company's various newspapers and unfurling expletive-laden rants - and still in denial along with the rest, all the while calling for the crews to level the cherry trees so he can sell the stumps to the highest bidder.

But as easily despised as he may be, Zell is no Hitler. He's not even a Nixon. And trust that, the way things are going, you won't have Zell to kick around much longer.

 By now the story is famous - a commercial airline landed safely on the icy waters of the Hudson River - and the pilot, Captain Chesley "Sully" Sullenberger, is destined to become an American legend and an old-fashioned hero. But how this event was first recorded in the media is anything but old fashioned.

"holy crap!! us air plane crashes ten blocks from my apartment into hudson river!!! omg!!!"

Thus tweeted Peter Shankman, social media gad-about-town, just seconds after the crash (all caps his). "God is a shout in the street," Stephen Daedalus said in James Joyce's Ulysses. And if that's true, we've all become a little closer to the Almighty with the arrival of Twitter.

Janis Krums, a man on a ferry boat that went to the floating plane's aid, took one of the first clear pictures of the jet, showing passengers shivering on the wing - with his iPhone and posted it to his Twitter via twitpic. His photo was used on the cover of no fewer than 21 newspapers the next morning including, the Los Angeles Times, Chicago Sun-Times, Kansas City Star, San Diego Union Tribune and San Francisco Chronicle. Krums went on a mini-media tour based on his photo and the accompanying tweet: "There's a plane on the Hudson. I'm on the ferry going to pick up the people. Crazy." The next day his Twitter was full of alerts about when his next interview would be aired, as in: "I'll be on Good Morning America today. Not sure what time. I'm in the green room now."

Evan Williams, Jack Dorsey and Biz Stone, Twitter's founders, have not yet come up with a way to monetize their creation, but there is no denying its effect on media, and so we thought seriously about naming them Media People of the Year. The funny thing is that, as new as Twitter still is and as much as we may call its users "early adopters," the seemingly innate drive people have to be the first to know or the first to report is not new - it's just that these guys have enabled it on a mass scale.

And on Twitter or Wikipedia this impulse to break news (either about explosions in the street or what sort of jelly doughnut is best) is met with an equal drive by others to correct for accuracy. We are hardwired for this behavior, according to Dr. Gerald Goodman, professor emeritus, psychology, at UCLA. "It's an urge to be one who stands out among many, someone listened to, someone beyond the ordinary - valuable, even esteemed," he says. "Being esteemed begets feeling self-esteem. Being heard begets the experience of being known - a basic hunger."

Tools like Twitter and good old Wikipedia, whether wittingly or not, have tapped into this hunger, and used it to create dynamic open-source information. Sometimes the race gets the better of people and you end up with what happened after Sens. Robert Byrd and Ted Kennedy collapsed after Obama's inauguration: Their Wikipedia entries were swiftly (and erroneously) changed to say they had died. "What is fascinating is that information and knowledge has been transformed into a dynamic process that is constantly updating and self-correcting. Mistakes are made, sometimes embarrassing errors, but they are invariably corrected," says Matthew Fraser, coauthor of Throwing Sheep in the Boardroom and a senior research fellow at INSEAD. "That is a revolutionary transformation."

Traditional media were originally dismissive of this revolution, says Fraser. But no more: "They have finally realized that it is for real and its consequences are powerful, so now they are scampering to understand its dynamics before it knocks them out of the box."

There were others we thought about as well. For every Sarah Palin recommendation (yes, more than one) there were quite a few Tina Feys. Someone even suggested that Fey might have saved the country with her Palin drag act. In the same vein, Jon Stewart came up in conversation, as did Fey's boss and snl creator Lorne Michaels, mentioned for the way that popular media and satirists are seen to have brought an honest and clear voice to an election year and in a time of economic upheaval, especially Stewart, of late. There were even a couple of calls for non-fake newsperson Rachel Maddow. The Huffington Post has gotten respect as a credible news source, and managed to keep growing in leaps and bounds, which led some to suggest Arianna Huffington. Arianna even scored a mention on 30 Rock, St. Tina's show. There was a thought given to Carlos Slim Helú, the Mexican media baron who bailed out The New York Times. Jason Kilar of Hulu gets a nod for making online video work for television, like YouTube on Ritalin. Then there are those who think young Mark Zuckerberg has played his cards just right and made Facebook the biggest game in town. By now you know we didn't select any of these people as the MPOTY.

Chances are you aren't familiar with the name of the person we ultimately picked, but you surely know his work. He's the man who might just have framed the way we enter a mobile world - a developer's developer with a penchant for cracking code, named Maksim Rogov.

Read the Media Person of the Year story about Maksim Rogov...
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