Trust in Gatekeepers

Media | Access/Network
Reading Civilities, one might get the impression that I have no respect for the work that Harvard’s does (I happen to have sympathy for Seth Finkelstein’s case), or respect for the “A-List Gatekeepers” (Mike Sanders does not say that, though he uses that quoted phrase), or even respect for women bloggers (Shelley Powers lumped me in with some alpha-bloggers, and later modified that, downgrading me from an onion to a scallion.)

Let me correct those mis-impressions which I’ve just made for myself:

One woman I read is Nancy White, who found something via Kolobora, an aggregated post from Ken Thompson’s BioTeams, passing on a wrap-up by David Bollier from a month earlier about what appears to have been a very interesting conference… a collaboration between the Berkman Center and the Gruter Institute of the University of Vermont Law School.

The triumphalists would point to this emergent chain transmission which brought me this news; I sure didn’t need any A-Listers. But what if it didn’t emerge? What if, instead of having a look at Nancy’s blog at 2am, I just went to sleep?

It’s not like I could have made the conference six weeks ago. There were no pretenders there, mostly academics. But in reading the briefs on the conference, the reflections about the need for an evolutionary understanding of media, it seems very relevant to the work I’m doing here. Here’s the mission statement for the conference, which immediately signals to me that they are interested in addressing challenges:

One of the key challenges for contemporary institutions and organizations is how to scale trust from the personal to the impersonal. This is not just true for creating economic and civil institutions in the developing world, but also for governing large scale institutions and bureaucracies as well.

Hmm… trust. A synonym for credibility. Funny, the January conference Blogging, Journalism and Credibility received an inordinate amount of attention. There were scores of resources tagged with “webcred” on the social bookmarking service. As I wrote, they did a tremendous effort in including public voices. Maybe this new one was too theoretical. Whatever it was, it wasn’t deemed “blogworthy.”

How would we have find out about it? I don’t subscribe to the Berkman RSS feed, but if I had, I would have seen an announcement at 7:30am that day: “All day today, we will audio webcast the final Gruter-Berkman workshop of the year.” The appearances of Jimmy Wales and Steven Johnson got more advanced press than that. That’s entirely understandable, given that Wales and Johnson were there to make public presentations. Still, there was no official followup about the workshop.

The blogging ethos favors dissemination from individuals, not institutions, so perhaps I should have checked in with one of the blogger-fellows of the Berkman Center, David Weinberger. I read Weinberger’s blog every on occasion, often because a correspondent of mine is responding to it. I hadn’t heard about the Gruter-Berkman workshop. I checked: nothing mentioned in April. Nothing to say, “just a followup to that big conference on credibility.”

Well it just so happens that the workshop did invite an A-List Blogger, somebody who would be able to do just that: Doc Searls. He mentioned it on his blog — one of 14 posts for the day, saying thus: “I’m at the Gruter-Berkman Roundtable Workshop at Harvard, which is being webcast live. I see I’m on a 2:15pm panel.” Translation: ho hum, another conference.

I’m not against the idea of gatekeepers– I’ve written a long series about that. I just wish that they start playing the part: organizing information better, maintaining a sense of priority, not sweating the small stuff (the one Weinberger post that sticks out in my mind from this year was a rumination on how it was that snow melted around a tree). Lots of people– well, enough to fill a small lecture hall– would do anything to have a job where they can hang around academics all day and listen to the latest research. The flip-side to that is they should bother to distill this access for their readers. In other words, they have to mediate.

This isn’t the first time I’ve seen this. Six months ago, I heard about a company here in Boston called BzzAgents which has pioneered word-of-mouth marketing. How did that reach me? Via the New York Times Magazine. Not from the people who wrote the book on the “Cluetrain” revolution in marketing and who blog about it every day. As with this time, I checked afterwards: nada.

Let’s find some new mediators. Probably should start with the ones from the chain of transmission above.