In the world of new media, “you” and “i” are more than just pronouns. Robert Lane Greene decodes their significance ...

From INTELLIGENT LIFE Magazine, Spring 2011 

One way to gauge the prevalence of a word is to consult the Oxford English Corpus, a body of 2 billion words. “I” comes in tenth; “you” is 18th. They are not quite our two favourite subject pronouns: “he” is 16th (“she” is 30th). But in the world of the 21st century, “you” and “i” are two very potent little words.

Apple, as so often, got there first, launching the iMac in 1998. Steve Jobs, Apple’s boss, said that the “i” was for “internet”what most new computer-buyers were then buying computers for—while behind him the words “individual”, “instruct”, “inform” and “inspire” appeared on the screen. Apple went on to ride the “i” hard for the next 12 years, introducing the iBook, iPod, iPhone and iPad. Its software included an iLife suite with iTunes, iPhoto and iMovie. At that 1998 launch, Jobs coyly avoided making an obvious point: “i” wasn’t really about the internet or anything else, it was about you. It was there to make you feel the iMac was made for you personally.

Why “i”, besides the obvious? At the time of the iMac launch, “cyber” had lost its currency (remember cyberspace?), and its place had been largely taken by “e-” for “electronic”. E-mail had already been around for a few years, and its popularity led the “e” to be detached and re-attached to all manner of internet-based phenomena. We started sending e-cards as well as e-mails, engaged in e-commerce (through e-tailers like eBay), and bought and sold shares on ETrade. That “e” is still working hard to this day, as shown by the rapid rise of e-books on e-readers.

Apple’s bold move was to pounce on one of the four remaining vowels, and our tenth favourite word, for its own naming convention. Interestingly, it has never tried to copyright its “i”. In fact, it has run into others’ trademarks: Cisco made an iPhone before Apple ever did, and Fujitsu made an iPad. (Apple now shares “iPhone” with Cisco; it bought “iPad” from Fujitsu.) Soon after the first iPhone, along came the BBC iPlayer, a popular way of catching programmes you missed by watching them online. So Apple’s lock on “i” isn’t legal or technical. But now, after four successful generations of the iPhone and the steep ascent of the iPad, anyone else caught iNaming a digital product would look like an Apple imitator. The BBC  is giving up the struggle: it has plans to broaden and transform the iPlayer—into YouView.

The BBC and its allies will thus be moving their tanks off Apple’s lawn and on to Google’s. The biggest “you” in the world is YouTube,  founded in 2005 and bought a year later by Google. It still has the slogan “broadcast yourself”, and was originally intended primarily for amateur video-sharing. But it was a tremendous success, and for a while it seemed that we were living through the age of “you”. In 2006 Time magazine surprised fans of its venerable “Person of the Year” feature by giving the honour to “you”, complete with a mirror-style cover saying, “Yes, you. You control the Information Age. Welcome to your world.”

YouTube’s clips of cute pets, annoying kids and half-naked exhibitionists were soon joined by a wave of content from television and movie professionals, copied either legally or not. The “you” ethos survives in the occasional home-made breakthrough video like last year’s “Gap Yah”, and even more so in offshoots like the amateur-hour YouPorn. But “you” hasn’t been as productive as “i”. Nor have product-namers converged on the three trends of pronouns, hip prefixes and abbreviation to take the obvious next step: “u”. I was able to find only one example, U-Verse, AT&Ts bundle of high-speed internet and media services.

i is also the name of the baffling new snack version of the British newspaper the Independent, costing only 20p and containing no articles longer than 400 words, as well as a more coherent Portuguese paper, in which the i is clearly linked to the word informação.

Since we tend to be quite fond of both ourselves and those like us, why are we not seeing more of “we”? America has WE TV, previously named WE: Women’s Entertainment. OurSpace was a black American alternative to Myspace, the early social-networking site, but it didn’t fly. America’s Us magazine is popular, but its title is something of a cruel joke on the reader: it is about famous beautiful people the reader will never meet. “We” can’t compete with “you” and “i”.

Opposites though they seem, “you” and “i” are really about the same thing: your iPod and your YouTube habits are both about you, not me, and my iPod and YouTube are about me, thank you very much. How many of us really see the You in YouTube as a plural? (Christians with camcorders: we’re still waiting for YeTube.) As technology gets better at giving each of us what we want, or think we want, the world of you and I and he and she all coming together as we is becoming a thing of the past. 


Robert Lane Greene is an international correspondent for The Economist. His book about language, "You Are What You Speak", is out now. His last article for Intelligent Life was about the rivalry between Apple and Google. Illustration: Brett Ryder.