One is tempted to say that the whole idea of Person of the Year started going downhill when Time began to deviate from the seemingly unbreakable formula of selecting actual persons in favor of inanimate objects, like The Computer (1982) or The Earth (1992), or such vaguely defined groups as “American Scientists” (1960) “The Protester” (2011), and “You” (2002). But really the conceit has always been a strange one. For one thing it has never been clear exactly what it means to be a Person of the Year. What are the qualities that unite communist dictators, aviation pioneers, presidents, diplomats, civil rights leaders, and popes with Wallis Simpson? Is it, on balance, a good thing to be Person of the Year? If not, why do they occasionally make feel-good humanitarian selections like “Ebola Fighters” (2014)?…

It is also dated. The kind of unified public culture that Time once spoke to, and, indeed helped to create, is now as remote as antenna television, if not scripted radio drama. Cable news, the internet, and perhaps especially, social media have magnified certain public personalities to the point that their significance does not need to be explained or even alluded to, obviating the need for pseudo consensus-defining statements (did you know that Donald Trump was kind of a big deal in 2016?). But they have also destroyed the homogenous assumptions that once made such declarations plausible. There is no consensus American public sagely nodding along at the interesting point about the state of our national life made by the magazine’s editors when they choose Greta Thunberg (remember her?) as Person of the Year in 2019. Instead there are only adolescent liberals screaming “Slay Kween!” and right-wing Facebook uncles responding with unprintable nouns and adjectives; in between, an indifferent mass of people who have never heard of her might wonder why a hysterical Swedish teenager should be taken seriously as a political commentator, much less designated as the year’s most interesting or important personality.