The New Gatekeepers, Part 6: A Summary

Before I get to the solutions, I’ll spend some time summarizing what has been discussed in The New Gatekeepers series, this being part 6.

People around the world have discovered their voices, and enjoy seeing their work published online for others to read. The tools they use are quite often blogs, and thus they call themselves bloggers. And by the bubble of blogging, the format been hyped as a panacea for solving the problems of the media, of business, or organizations. It just doesn’t follow.

Blogging is a fascinating social movement; it is remarkable for people in closed societies like China and Iran to be able to open up to do this; and here in our open society it’s helped sparked a new level engagement in community and journalism. Blogging has since leapfrogged over the technology from the first twenty years of the Internet — mailing lists and newsgroups– which were primitive enough that I can excuse Rebecca Blood for twenty months ago calling weblogs the first wave. Her larger point was that there was more sophisticated waves to come.

We need to look past the wonder years and get to this next wave — how can we start solving real problems of information sharing in organizations, from businesses to nonprofits to political campaigns to academic institutions?

In part 1, I introduced a metaphor from evolution, Richard Dawkins’s cultural meme. (I should have recognized Douglas Rushkoff, Steven Johnson, and Kevin Kelly for having extended this discussion in the past decade.) Such groups need to promote the most original ideas, promote the sharpest questions to draw out new ideas, to promote the people who are best at handling those ideas and questions. To do that we need an environment conducive to such promotion, and that will best spur evolution. With the current environment we have, where everybody is expected to blog every day, and every community website is adding blogging capabilities, the level of noise has saturated the system. The irony is that instead of getting rid of gatekeepers– those who influence what is read by — the blogosphere, by its architecture demands a set of them.

Was I accurate in using the term “The New Gatekeepers”? It is easier to get information because of the Internet, and that’s why the role of a “gatekeeper” was presumed dead. What blogs did was make it easier to create information. Thus Seth Finkelstein explained a year ago: “It’s a gatekeeper of audience, not a gatekeeper of production, but this makes no different in the final result.” It’s not only critics who use the term, but boosters as well. I found a July article by B.L. Ochman, a public relations strategist: “Bloggers Causing Shift In How The Public Gets News; PR People Need To Learn To Deal With New Gatekeepers.”

In part 2, I explained that I’d be looking at the influential people a specific field, and I chose social media, a term often used to stand for the field which blogging is in. It would appear to be a more accessible field, than say, foreign policy (also popular on blogs), for several reasons: it is a new discipline; comparatively less is published in formal publications; doing/coding brings more respect than thinking/writing. I had assembled a list in the social media scorecard, and asked the people on the list to verify what I had summarized about them and find out who they really respected ine field. I got a few factual verifications, but no new names were suggested. It is possible, as I suggested, that many are loathe to admit to an A-list of influence. Nonetheless, there are people who blog many times a day, who talk at conferences, who appear on television, who are read by many, and it’s important to understand who they are and what they have to say.

Obviously, this field overlaps with journalism– that is an undercurrent in many blogging discussions, as I’ve found. It’s helpful to use journalism as a model, and thus I’ve used it as a model throughout. They are both systems for the sharing of practical information, along with opinion polls, market research, library science, public relations, news reporting. Journalism combines all of these. If you were to visit a new place, and had a dollar to spend on getting acquainted, you would likely purchase a product of journalism, the local newspaper. If you visit were virtual to a location or even a new topic, you would look for a product which combines the essences of practical information sharing.

To review the other lessons I drew in the series, I’ll walk though some examples.

A. Lessig, Winer, and “the best blogs”

At the introduction to this series I presented Lessig one of the intellectual giants of this age of open information. His books are tremendous. His blog often disappoints me (but then again, most do). Here is his blog post reacting to the discovery of Seth Finkelstein’s Infothought blog:

I missed that Seth has a blog. He’s been right about many things, but I think he’s wrong about one thing: blogs are not just for talkers, for talkers have no time for links. The best blogs synthesize, and reflect. Not just news, but a way to triangulate, as Dave describes it. I hope he rethinks.

I’m not sure what Lessig means here– he doesn’t even take the time to explain what Seth writes about (censorship code: software and laws). What are the best blogs? How is it that other writing formats don’t synthesize and reflect? (If I were to write “The best magazine articles research their topics, interview many sources, and weave together a solid narrative” there would be litltle confusion over that). Lessig is focusing on a set of values which he assumes are universally desired.

This is the thrust of part 3: There’s a certain set of values reinforced by the technology, which comes from its designers and principal boosters: especially those who play both roles, like the person Lessig cites, Dave Winer. They may be good values in and amongst themselves, but as I suggested they come at the expense of others: freedom over responsibility, quantity over quality, ego over deference, and others. You need to buy into this ethos if you want to be heard.

Two years ago, Winer listed over thirty features that he felt were common in a weblog, but “almost all the other elements can be missing, and the rules can be violated, imho, as long as the voice of a person comes through, it’s a weblog.” (now cached, the original page is broken) Thus according to him, there is no mandate to include the structural element of comments. If there are no public comments, there is less pressure to include the behavioral aspect of issuing corrections. In the world of newspapers and magazines is practically a given. In practice, a snapshot of twenty-five leading online political writers (blogging or not) showed that the application of comments are inconsistent. Kevin Drum, writing the Washington Monthly‘s Political Animal blog, noted this as well, observing how few of the top conservative blogs allow for open feedback.

It’s not unlike capitalism: it’s self-correcting in theory. But in practice we need institutions, procedures, standards — togther known as code, in Lessig’s 1999 formulation — to facilitate self-correction.

Reflecting on Lessig’s original channeling of Winer, they look forward to forms of information comprehension. They want readers to triangulate, that is, to be able to judge a post in the context of the body of work that the author or publisher has produced. This has never been easy for the casual newspaper reader, and isn’t much easier for the average blog reader as well. There is too much to read. I’ll address this in the solutions section.

B. Shirky, Sifry, and the “Long Tail”

I didn’t cover Clay Shirky’s Power Law: I should have mentioned it earlier. I am aware of it, as I’ve cited it in previous writings (see Blogging Archetypes). In the essay, Shirky explains that the blogosphere, like any other social system, reflects a power law, in which a small group attracts an outsized proportion of attention. As for everyone else, he suggests: “the long tail of weblogs with few readers will become conversational.” What is meant by conversational is debateable (I tried to debate it, but no one would debate back), but the concept of the “long tail” as a populist bazaar has caught on thanks to a Wired magazine article and now ongoing research project by editor-in-chief Chris Anderson. Here’s what David Sifry, after studying the data he’s collected on Technorati, concluded in March– seemingly trying to refute Shirky’s power law– “the aggregate influence of all of the long tail far outstrips even the mainstream media.”

But does the long tail actually exist in practice? Stephen Downes, a researcher in New Brunswick, Canada, who contacted me during the development of this series, said in a recent conference talk: “All of these people who are talking about the value and the virtue of the long tail have the unique quality of not being part of it.”

The “aggregate influence” could well exist, someday. In part 4 I explained the two different . There is discursive influence (which I had called “descriptive”– I now realize is awfully vague), that relies on a writer to supply an exposition on an idea. In this case the better writers, and the more frequent posters, will always have more concentrated influence. But if a large group– whether they identified themselves as the “long tail” or anything else– wanted to be able to aggregate their influence, they need to post in aggregateable forms such as ratings. The former is how the theater reivews work; the latters is how the Zagat restaurant reviews work. I’ll provide more specifics in the forthcoming solutions section about how this can work for any general ideas.

C. Newmark, Weinberger, Gillmor, Jarvis, and Information Cascades

Before the previous weekend, Craig Newmark stopped by the Associated Press bureau to muse some thoughts about the state of journalism. This had little news value for the reading public, but AP went ahead and filed the story “Craigslist, Scourge of Newspaper Classifieds, Now Turns to Journalism.” It had even less value for the insiders, who have heard this before as well, but they went ahead and promoted it; It was linked to by USC’s Online Journalism Review (“he certainly earned the authority to weigh in on effective ways to increase readership”), by David Weinberger (“This is how stuff happens”), by Jonathan Dube at Cyberjournalist, by Jeff Jarvis.– who appends his post to point out that Craig has a followup, and then another (four hours later). Dan Gillmor cited Newmark’s first followup without the original AP story. That’s because Newmark never mentioned it– even though he was clearly trying to correct it through key clarifications like: “craigslist may or may not play a role in this [citizen’s journalism].”

Among an entrepreneur, the Associated Press, a few bloggers, and some impressive institutions which specialize in online journalism, no one got the story straight. Not that there’s much of a story here. (The most appropriate response I can think of: “Online classifieds Craig Newmark again muses about the superficiality and sloppiness of contemporary reporting; AP compounds problem by writing a story about it.”) Still, when running through the ideas in this essay with my good friend Dave last weekend, he perked up when I mentioned this anecdote: “Yeah I read that– Craigslist is getting into reporting.” I asked him where he read that, and he believed it was CNN. The story did not go much further, but it well could have, since it reflects some of the larger patterns prevalent in blog-grown news.

What this represents is what I covered in part 5 on “information cascades,” though others may be familiar with terms pack journalism, herd mentality, groupthink. It’s what happens when people blindly trust what other people say without thinking to voice their opinion. An idea or person is promoted not because of the fitness of either but simply because it is a useful trade to promote a fellow traveler. What’s good for PR is not necessarily good for a democracy or a marketplace of ideas.

This should not be surprising; it all fits within the values of blogging. With no cost to publishing, there is no assumption of responsibility; nothing to lose if information is wrong. Gatekeepers, it turns out, are still needed.

I’ll extend this series at least one more part to explain a technological solution to get around gatekeeping.