27 May 2009 8:44 am   //   Filed under: Media, Technology

The gatekeepers (part I)

This is the first part of a two-part blog post. Read Part II.

I recently heard somebody refer to magazine editors as “gatekeepers,” a term that would boost my ego were it still true.

In the old world (up to, say, 2000), the media were controlled by powerful gatekeepers. That’s because there were many points of friction, where power concentrates. In the analog world, physics imposed severe limits on communication. Books, newspapers and magazines need ink and paper. The broadcast spectrum is limited. The expense of film and tape restricted the sharing of recorded information among consumers. People wanted to share way more information than was physically possible.

As a result, for any communication to take place, someone first had to allocate resources for it. That could be as simple as somebody writing a letter and affixing a stamp to an envelope. Or it could be as complex as a national TV network deciding what to air in prime time. Enter the gatekeepers. Not inherently good or evil, gatekeepers decide what should be seen and heard, and what shouldn’t. Media company owners hire managers, who hire editors, producers and ad sales forces. Each of these people has some gatekeeper function. To take newspapers as an example, editors are assigned to ensure only stories of interest to readers get published, and salespeople ensure only people with money get to advertise.

Then along came the Internet, which had the effect of an oil can applying lubricant to all those areas of friction. The result? Gatekeepers have less power and influence, while individuals have more. The trend is for there to be more gatekeepers, each with less influence. Soon, there may be no gatekeepers at all. Billions of people will each have a tiny amount of influence over communication. Editorial selections will be based on democratic rule, advertising will be sold at auction. Everything that reaches a large audience will do so with math backing it up. Stories will become popular because they are popular. This coming era of mob rule will open a whole new box of problems, but it is the inevitable end of this trend line.

This post is about media, but you can look at many other fields to see how computer networks have caused a disruptive reduction in friction: travel agencies, retail, financial services, academic research. The disruptive changes caused by computer networks are just getting started. Having torn apart media, information technology is poised to do the same for high-friction industries like real estate, health care, cars, you name it.

We need to watch where the new concentrations of power are forming. The Internet might destroy the old gatekeepers, but does the Internet have its own gatekeepers?

It does. They keep changing. The Internet itself might go away and be replaced with a whole other information system. But right now, in 2009, there is only one gatekeeper that matters: Google.

Read Part II.