The New Gatekeepers, Part 8: The Future

This piece brings the New Gatekeepers series to a close. I sketched out a future vision in the previous part, which I believe could happen, sometime. In the meanwhile, I will write about the future as it has happened over the past four months.

First, I will finally take an exception to one thing that Seth Finkelstein has written. He linked the last two pieces on a blog post today entitled “Anti-A-List Reading Roundup.” But I’m not against the A-List. I like elitists, as my bio and my reading habits suggest. I can rationalize the function of star network models, at the same time while the stars go on and on about being bottom-up.

Now in this series, I have been critical of the A-List mentality. I have been critical of certain editorial decisions made my A-Listers in certain fields. The entirety of this essays structure was framed in a hypothetical: if you are suspicious the role of gatekeepers, than these are the symptions, this how the blogosphere necessitates, these are the software tools that need to be designed to mitigate the need for gatekeepers.

I actually got a chance to meet some of the good people on the A-List at the Harvard Conference on Blogging, Journalism, and Credibility. This is the conference where I first came across Seth and his elegant phrasing: “the issue which some critics are exploring is that the speaker’s list, overall, doesn’t seem to have anyone who has to struggle for credibility.” At least I got a chance to see into the future, if I didn’t get far trying to contribute to it. (My 4,500-word summary of the conference looked at Inclusiveness as a theme, which had the benefit of helping push along the development of women’s blogging conference this summer without the regular alpha males.)

The tone of the Harvard “Webcred” conference was set by Jay Rosen’s introductory “Bloggers vs. Journalists is Over.” As I responded at the time, no one was going cue the minions about this little truce. The very next week CNN President Eason Jordan found himself targeted by bloggers for comments he made in an off-the-record forum at Davos. And it goes on. For every one hatchet job on blogs by a journalist (such a piece by the LA Times media critic David Shaw was rightfully disassembled by Slate‘s Jack Shafer), there are scores of blogs gnawing at the media.

During the conference everybody paid tribute to MSNBC President Rick Kaplan’s for proclaiming his company’s embrace of blogging. Not that he nor anyone could explain how effectively the cable network was using them; it was sufficient that they were. Jeff Jarvis gleefully announced, “MSNBC is — I will suck up one more time — the biggest blogsmart company there is.” The next month Jarvis got picked as a featured blogger on MSNBC’s Connected Coast-to-Coast with Ron Reagan and Monica Crowley. which brought him on the air for 90 seconds. A couple of months later, David Weinberger pinch hit on the program, announcing to his blog that he’d be “jarvising” on MSNBC. Nine days later, he quit. “In the ninety seconds MSNBC gives over to blogging, they want to pair A-Listers into a he-said/she-said report on a Major Topic… I just couldn’t face implicitly confirming the idea that the blogosphere consists of big voices arguing with one another….” So much for MSNBC being blogsmart. The final words on the mash-up between blogs and cable news may go to Jon Stewart, in an uproariously funny segment on The Daily Show. “Kudos to MSNBC… for finally using blogs to give voice to the already-voiced.”

I learned a lot more from the people on the periphery at the conference. One of them was Stephen Baker, who was covering it for Business Week. As best as I remember, he was skeptical and intrigued by the whole discussion. I didn’t know then that he had already been posting to a blog for the magazine. This past month he helped launch BlogSpotting, the magazine’s sixth blog. But Stowe Boyd, president of the Corante group blog, slammed it and other “traditional media companies” for not reading blogs before they start– or, in other words, as Baker responded, not paying tribute to the right insiders.

Finally there’s someone who didn’t go to that conference at all, a woman who needed no introduction to online media, Arianna Huffington. Last week she launched the Huffington Post, a group-written blog by journalists and other media personalities. Apparently the blogosphere’s getting territorial. Here’s how Jack Shafer summed up the reaction: “Reading the hundreds of blog entries about Huffington’s site from today is like watching a swarm of fire ants invade a robin’s nest and turn the chicks to red pulp.” Hardly a blog triumphalist, he had also written that “none of the alleged bloggers at the Huff Post are really arguing with anybody or reacting to much of anything in the news in their first entries…” I didn’t see much in the way of red pulp but it didn’t take long for those alleged bloggers to drop the “alleged.” Today the Huffington Post dished out seven posts on the Newsweek non-story, including discussions amongst themselves, amongst other people.

What’s going on here? Up until the beginning of the year, the blogging evangelists were begging every public figure to blog. Now the floodgates have started opening. And those who have had mild fame by being the big fish in a small sea may now find themselves in the ocean among even bigger fish.

As it is so easy to blog– why should it be that difficult to master by people who are famous for their ability to communicate? When David Greenberg, the journalism professor and writer, needed to cite the blogosphere about the Yalta conference for his Slate “History Lesson” column, he turned to Arthur Schlesinger’s “blog” in the Huffington Post. Schlesinger’s blogging credentials could be questioned by some, but he is as much a blogger as Rony Abovitz is. Who’s that, you say? Oh, he had been blogging for all of one day when he wrote the the initial blog post about Eason Jordan’s comment at the Davos World Economic Forum (see When Bloggers Make the News), and has only written twice to his blog in the last two months. I can only speculate that Abovitz is busy with his job, where he is CTO of a medical technology company, and he can leave the commenting on public affairs to Arthur Schlesinger.

And if Arther Schlesinger contributes his wealth of knowledge to everyday discourse– call it a blog or not– that should be a good thing. There just may be less regular people moonlighting as public experts.

I wouldn’t be surprised to see a parallel to the “new media” of the last century, Hollywood. The silent films originally demanded a physical screen prescence: the dashing Douglas Fairbanks, the sweetheart Mary Pickford, the comedic Charlie Chaplin (who together founded United Artists as a studio run by the actors and directors, not by the studio heads). When the technology changed to introduce talking pictures, stage actors gradually replaced the silent stars, (see Singin’ in the Rain. Really, turn the computer off, and see it!) The impact of Marlon Brando and Method acting further cemented the primacy of actors in the post-WWII era. There are obviously still people in entertainment who’ve come to prominence based primarily to their looks, but their long-term success (the ability to act in other roles, and especially, as older roles) is a reflection of their skills as an actor.

We shouldn’t be surprised if the new gatekeepers start acting, or even looking, like the old gatekeepers. That’s one future and we’ll have to get use to it. [After note: This paragraph has been shortened for greater clarity.]

Or, if we really want a more flat system, with “power to the edges” and the “grassroots” and the “long tail” and any other marketing term that can be substituted for the citizenry, we ought to do what we set out to do in the first place: we have to design the technology specfically for that purpose.

That’s what I’ll be doing next.