No gatekeepers — just a bunch of turnstiles

by Mathew on January 20, 2006 · 12 comments

First of all, I want to make it clear that I’m not linking to Scott Karp of Publishing 2.0 again just because he linked to me and mentioned my name right after using the term “great bloggers” — although I can’t deny that I was flattered :-). I think his latest post about new media “gatekeepers” raises some good questions, just as a similar piece by Justin Fox at CNNMoney does. Even though I ranted a bit in a previous post about Scott, I think he is on the right track, and I think it is a debate and a conversation worth having.

The question is, who replaces the newspaper or radio and TV — the old-media gatekeepers? In other words, who do we look to for advice on what is relevant? Scott asks:

Who decides what’s worthy of your attention — a Web 2.0 application, a newspaper columnist, a talk show host, an editorial staff, an influential blogger, a community of thousands, a community of millions?

He also mentions how the A-list of bloggers, such as Dave Winer and Jeff Jarvis and Steve Rubel, seem to be a little like the Old Media gatekeepers, in that they (with the help of tech.memeorandum.com and other sites) help determine whose voice is heard and whose is not.

On that point, I would have to disagree with Scott yet again. I haven’t been blogging that long, and I haven’t been actively trying to get traffic or links — apart from linking to and commenting on posts that I find interesting — and yet I’ve appeared on tech.memeorandum.com many times. I think the barriers are lower than they might appear to Scott and others, such as Kent Newsome, who has also written about how difficult it is to start a blog and get past the new media gatekeepers.

As for Scott’s question about who decides what is worthy of attention — a Web 2.0 application, a newspaper columnist, a talk show host, an editorial staff, an influential blogger, etc. — I would have to agree with someone who commented on Scott’s post and say simply: Yes. All of the above, and more. As Matt McAlister suggests on his blog, the relevance of the “gatekeeper” role is quickly fading. Aggregator? Yes. Filter? Yes. Gatekeeper? No. I tend to think Stowe Boyd is right — there are a blend of voices filtering and recommending, from individuals to institutions, and even machines.

Update:

For more thoughts from Scott and I, as well as my friend Stuart MacDonald, please see the comments below — and Kent Newsome also has a perspective on the whole thing that’s worth reading.

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  • http://www.stuartmacdonald.ca Stuart MacDonald

    Here’s the thing: I don’t care what the category is (and from a consumer perspective, though they would never think of it that way, news and information is a “category”), people value direction. Call it a gatekeeper, or a filter, or whatever — fact is, there is just too much “stuff” and not enough time nor deep involvement (usually) to warrant slogging through everything. It is basic consumer behaviour. Said another way, it’s still all about brands and their relationships with each other. “Huh?” you say? Stay with me for a second: brands are a lot of things, but one of their big functions is as a filter of “what is for and trusted by me” and “what is not”. This function is really valuable, and the only difference is that brands in the blogosphere are often just “Folks” as opposed to a venerable masthead.

    You can call them gatekeepers or whatever, but at the end of the day, what I find fascinating is that even in this age of instant, individual publishing and what have you, the value of The Brand still shines through.

    – Stuart

  • Mathew

    For what it’s worth, Stuart, I agree — I just don’t like the term
    “gatekeeper” :-) I agree that we still need ways of filtering
    things, of separating what’s important and what isn’t — we probably
    need that more than ever. But I think “brands,” if you want to call
    them that, are likely to be developed by relationships, however brief
    or fleeting — not by names on a masthead somewhere or corporate
    relationships, or placement on a newstand or TV broadcast. There are
    blog writers whose opinions I trust even though i know virtually
    nothing about them except for what they’ve written — that’s a very
    different kind of brand, I think.

  • http://publishing2.com Scott Karp

    Thanks, Stuart, you took the words right out of my mouth — much of the discussion around my post is quibbling over terms, because “gatekeeper” offends blogger’s libertarian sensibilities.

    But it’s more than that — forgive me for saying so, but the counterarguments I’ve heard, including Mathew’s (with all due respect), are completely illogical. Unless the system of online content has devolved into a state of complete entropy, there are gatekeepers by definition. It makes no sense to say that because it’s possible for some bloggers to make it through the gate easier than you might think, that proves there are no gatekeepers.

    Mathew, you may have made it through the gate, but what about the other 20 million blogs that Technorati has tracked? That’s 20 MILLION. They’re not all getting attention — why? Gatekeepers. You may have made it onto tech.memeorandum, but 99.9% of blogs never will. That’s a gatekeeper by definition.

    I’m not suggesting that the nature of media gatekeeping isn’t rapidly changing. My question is what end state are we heading for, and is it a good thing?

    If we’re going to be clear-minded about the evolution of new media, we need to call a spade a spade.

  • Mathew

    Great — now you guys are ganging up on me.

    It’s not just libertarian sensibilities though, Scott. Part of it is
    that I don’t think the term “gatekeeper” is a very good description of
    what we’re talking about. I think “gatekeeper” applies much better to
    something like a newspaper than it does to something like technorati.
    Filter is a much better word — and that filter isn’t driven by any
    single person or even a group of people acting together, which is an
    important distinction.

    Gatekeepers like newspapers are effectively controlled by a handful of
    people, who decide what news goes in and what doesn’t. Technorati
    filters blogs based on links and traffic, which are effectively votes.
    Is there a “power law” distribution effect? Probably. But that
    doesn’t mean new voices can’t make their way into the discussion in a
    way they can’t where real gatekeepers are concerned. As for why most
    of those other blogs aren’t getting attention, maybe it’s because what
    they’re saying is only of interest to a small group.

    I’m not saying that filters aren’t important, or that influential
    bloggers don’t play a role. I’m just saying that it’s qualitatively
    different from what Old Media gatekeepers do. In the end, I suspect
    that we agree more than we disagree.

  • http://sethf.com/ Seth Finkelstein

    “I’m a technology writer at The Globe and Mail, …”

    Let them eat cake.

    Matt, you *are* a gatekeeper! You have a professional media gig. To write that there are no gatekeepers, low barriers, simply from your own experience, is a classic blindness.

    Yes, there is a very small group of people who determine what gets heard overall. This is established anytime someone does some counting.

  • Mathew

    Thanks for the comment, Seth. I know I might be a “gatekeeper” in the old media world, but I don’t think that amounts to a hill of beans in the new media world. And I’m not saying there aren’t influential people in the blogosphere, I just think that things like technorati and digg and so on level the playing field somewhat compared with the old. You can’t just start up a column and get published in a newspaper, but you do have a shot at starting a blog and getting recognized by others for what you write. The barriers to entry — the gate, I guess — is lower, it’s as simple as that.

  • http://sethf.com/ Seth Finkelstein

    Matt, are you seriously asserting that being a writer for a national newspaper has no effect at all on how easily you can get blog readers? That the exposure, the social connections, are not to be considered? Now, people have said such things, like saying coming from a rich family has no effect on future success in life. But it’s hard to know what to reply to a person in that case (note this doesn’t mean it’s a sure thing, but it’s certainly amajor advantage).

    Your chance of staring a blog and getting recognized is exactly parallel your chance of sending your column to editors and getting published to a wide audience. In both cases, it can happen, if you’re in the right place and the right time. But there’s a lot of unsuccessful attempts for every winner. In the blog case, if lightning doesn’t strike, you’ll “publish” it to a few friends of family members, which is frankly often NOT the goal (no offense to the people who are happy talking to crickets, but many aren’t).

    I mean, what would convince you? What argument could be made that you would consider? Would you always say something like, anyone can plunk down a dollar in the lottery and win, so there’s no barrier to riches in the lotterysphere.. And people can waste away fortunes, so that (fallaciously) proves there’s no inheritance advantage.

    We know that the structure of audience is a power-law, an exponential distribution. This has been well-studied, and repeatedly established. That is, for a given topic, there’s a few people with a lot of readers, and everyone else.

    See, e.g. this essay by someone else:
    http://civilities.net/TheNewGatekeepers

  • Mathew

    Seth, I’m not saying the fact that I’m a newspaper columnist doesn’t help (although it might also hurt). And I know there’s a power-law effect in the blogosphere, as there is elsewhere. I would just argue, as I said before, that the barriers to entry are lower when it comes to “new media” than in “old media.” Not that they don’t exist at all, just that they are lower. And thanks for sending the link — I will definitely read it.

  • http://sethf.com/ Seth Finkelstein

    I would put it that the size of the barriers swamps any relative difference for most purposes.

    That is, if “old meda” chances are “one in a million”
    And “new media” chances are “two in a million”.

    One could say “chances of success in new media are DOUBLE that of old media” – it would be true. But it would also be true that both chances are basically zero for many practical purposes.

    What commentators often miss, is that the lowered barrier to having material produced intrinsically raises the barrier to having it effectively distributed (getting heard over noise). So the net effect is pretty much exactly the same for almost everyone, in terms of facing barriers to entry. There’s a very tiny subset of people who have overcome the distribution barrier, so they are utterly in love with the lowering of the production barrier – it’s great for them.

    No offense intended. I discuss some of these issues myself e.g. this old blog post:

    http://sethf.com/infothought/blog/archives/000606.html

  • Mathew

    No offense taken. I think it’s an interesting question — and I’ve read some of the stuff you’ve written on it in the past, as well as some of what Jon Garfinkel has written. I agree the signal vs. noise problem is a big one, and I certainly agree that it’s worth talking about the barriers that exist. I would like to do what I can to lower them, and to seek out new voices — that’s part of why I’m doing this in the first place.

  • http://www.stuartmacdonald.ca Stuart MacDonald

    Not ganging up, ‘thew. All good :-)

    And it’s not like I am being inconsistent…I really do believe that the emergence of blogs and low-barrier publishing serves to further illustrate how valuable The Brand (aka the sum total of experience associated with a given “thing”) is.

    Great discussion.

    – Stuart

  • Mathew

    I assume Seth and probably Jon would argue that “brand” in that sense is part of what turns people into “gatekeepers,” which in turn makes them just as bad as the old media gatekeepers…

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