Have you noticed how almost every form of public communication nowadays is aimed directly at you? The second person has always been the primary addressee of advertising and political rhetoric, but it’s striking how prevalent it has become in our new age of constant connectedness. You can’t go two sentences online, it seems, without hearing about yourself.
Whenever someone wants to deliver an emotive message or prompt to action, "you" is the easy and reliable shortcut. In 1914, the British recruited soldiers for the Great War with the iconic "Your Country Needs You" poster, which three years later would be remixed into the equally famous "I Want You for the US Army" Uncle Sam propaganda. The advertising industry took a while to catch up, spending most of the last century peddling casual sexism, but by the ‘90s it too was on board the second person hype train. And have you listened to any pop music lately? The most enduring element in pop isn’t the beauty or youth of the performer, but the constant, recurring, ever-present lyrical crutch that is the second person (check out this Billboard list of most common song titles for proof). A love song without a "you" in it is considered practically avant-garde.
But the thing that’s changed in the internet era is slightly subtler than the foregoing examples. Just as Steve Jobs, Mark Zuckerberg, and Larry Page casualized the wardrobe of big-time CEOs, so too have their companies also relaxed the language by which we communicate. The old passive voice, boring as a beige desktop PC, has this century been supplanted by a friendly and conversational tone. "Add Beats to your summer," urges Apple.com, while Facebook "helps you connect and share with the people in your life." With smartphones now being the most personal thing in our lives, it makes total sense that the apps on our phones would also be addressing the second person. When Professor Willow swaggers onto your screen in Pokémon Go, who is he talking to? He’s hardly alone, of course, as you can hardly even set up a smart light bulb these days without some perky encouragement from a zealous copywriter.
I love you, second person
You works. We know this because we see it in every form of clickbait and spam on the web. From the "hey, big boy!" sexbots on Twitter to the "you might also like" cesspits and "you’ll never believe what happened next" headlines of tabloidy websites. I admit my own guilt in spicing up my tweets and headlines with a sprinkling of second person seasoning, but I hope that the thing I’m baiting people to click is ultimately satisfying enough to justify that effort. I suppose I too am a product of the times.
In politics, you is a primary tool in any aspiring world leader’s arsenal. Donald Trump is "your voice" and his campaign slogan of "make America great again" is also directed at the second person. You make America Great again. Theresa May, the newly appointed British Prime Minister, turned her acceptance speech into a you poem, rattling off 40 instances of "you" or "your" in less space than it takes me to write down my weekly grocery shop. Not to be outdone, Hillary Clinton dropped an impressive 95 "yous" in accepting the Democratic nomination for US president.
Recall that 2006 Time Magazine cover where the Person of the Year was a capitalized "You," with a mirrored surface that would reflect your own visage on the pictured iMac’s screen. It got mocked at the time, for supposedly making a mockery of its own premise, but with the benefit of hindsight today it seems to have been spot on. You can’t go on the website featured in that Time issue, YouTube, without either reading the word or constantly hearing it from subscription-hungry content producers. I love you, please subscribe! It must be tiring being you, with everyone constantly wanting a piece of you, talking about you, imploring you, and directing you.
Yes, friend, though you might feel more alienated by the modern digital life, the fact is that this world’s revolving around you more than ever now. Well, maybe not specifically you, but whatever part of you is useful, such as the click, vote, retweet, or other modicum of attention you can provide. And until you still have those in you, the world will keep talking to you.