The New Gatekeepers, Part 2: Who They Are

…where I learned just who the new gatekeepers were, and why people are suspicious of their roles.

Second in the series on The New Gatekeepers.

The central gatekeepers, or, connectors, on the blogs are commonly referred to as the A-List. When Jeff Jarvis responded to the Jenkins/Microdocs “A-list,” he demurred that there were actually “a hundred A-lists,” one for each subject. Of course, that sidesteps the point that certain subjects are of more interest than others: politics and the press, which touch on everything else. The core gate that is kept is, of course, the new media– that which is alternatively descibed as interactive, social, or participatory. It covers popular web-based technologies which allows for public participation. I’ve put together a Social Media Scorecard to compare and contrast the popularity of some of the more influential and less influential people perceived as experts in this field.

Jarvis isn’t the only one who takes his responsibility lightly. Markos Moulitsas Zuniga, who runs DailyKos community blog which counts 40,000 members regularly brushes off any need for critical analysis. Recently he wrote: “Stories about blogging and bloggers are boring and old.” Anil Dash, a Vice President of Six Apart, maker of the MovableType blog publishing software and self-identifies as “a recognized expert on the weblog medium and on the blogging industry,” recently offered this vague exposition that dichotomies about weblogs “almost all end up as not being a big deal.” It’s this dance that Henry Farrell of George Washington University has called “the blogging two step.” When blogging is presented as something revolutionary, everybody’s behind it; otherwise the “it’s only blogging defence” is raised.

I had been writing for a year, collaborating occasionally with the post-blogging Drupal project, before considering how I needed to spread my ideas to a wider community. I went to a Berkman Center’s December conference on “Votes, Bits, and Bytes,” to meet a few hundred people. My simple writeup was recognized, so I felt inspired to ask if I could go to their next conference, the invitation-only “Blogging, Journalism, and Credibility” that they co-hosted in January.

And that was when I first learned that there truly was an A-list. Going into the conference I started reading the concerns of the public– well, an interested subset thereof– that the group meeting was hardly representative of the blogging community (Jarvis was one of the main foci of the concerns). The arguments were not clear, but the sense was that there was just something that seemed illegitimate about the usual suspects. I ended up writing my an analysis on the concerns about inclusiveness. The typical blogger was a bit suspicious about the academics and journalists as well. But that’s probably because academics and journalists seem to be outside the sphere of blogging.

Consider that in America today there’s an constant gripe voiced about about the power wielded by the “unelected”– be they journalists, judges, and at rare times, captains of industry, etc. Elected or not, people in positions of power need to practice reciprocity– that is, they need to heed the concerns of the governed. That’s the challenge that the leading bloggers have issued to journalists. But it’s not plainly clear that these leading bloggers have considered the processes of how to best engage in reciprocity themselves.

A clear place to see this is in the discussions over the last couple of years about women in blogging. In her post announcing a women’s blogging conference Elisa Camahort wrote: “How can such a new medium already have an ‘old boy’s club’? Or is this just a continuation of an existing club?” The discussions have bounced around for a few weeks, leading Jay Rosen to promote “new voices” on his blog. One of them was Jenny Demonte, a former journalist now studying education. (We actually got acquainted while commenting on Jeff Jarvis’s blog– we both had wondered why he didn’t direct more of his energies towards the online media company he’s the President of). Of the elite, she wrote in a post entitled Journalism and the culture of power ,“It’s like being a fish… you can’t see the water.”

There’s a sense, suggested by Shelley Powers, is that what makes the A-List the A-List is that they primarily link to eachother. That’s only part of the picture. What is clearly the case is that just about everybody links to them– whether in their blogrolls, or in everyday citations. In my travels to find global voices, I found Ahmed, a pharmacy student in Saudi Arabia who writes a blog in English as well as in Arabic. I noticed that some of the Americans he wrote about were a familiar bunch, so I asked him how he came to choose them. “Maybe the reason that everyone is linking to the ‘A-list’ bloggers is that because they write good content?”

Contrast that with a more mundane theory: “What makes A-Listers necessarily meritorious? Aren’t they just people with more time than others . . to sit at the keyboard and compose and post?” Dean Landsmen, a New York media consultant, wryly asked in a discussion on Seth Finkelstein’s blog a year ago. And that may be the case as well. We have a group of people who, by a little bit of work, a little bit of luck, and perhaps a nice helping of momentum, are at the hubs of opinion-making about the ongoing revolution in media.

Now that we see that there are people who exercise a larger degree of influence, we ought to be curious as to ethe values which they they espouse. That will be for the next section.