The New Gatekeepers

A recent article in the Wall Street Journal claims that there is a level of conflict of interest for bloggers who have advised FON and are writing about it. While the Journal’s story, in itself, is probably more of a tempest in a tea cup, I do believe that it raises some interesting issues in terms of buzz in the blogosphere.

The New Gatekeepers

For all that is being said about the democratizing effect of the blogosphere, the truth is that systems of hierarchies that have existed for thousands of years still exist in the online world. It may be that humans are hard-wired for hierarchies and find an innate need to give more power to a certain amount of gatekeepers.

In the past, access to information was directly tied to monetary fortune. Before the advent of the printing press, books were very expensive so, as a result, the knowledge that was transferred through books was only accessible to one of two groups: rich people, knights and other people with some type of royal title, and religious leaders, including the people in monasteries who created those books. As a result, the information traded via books was largely centered on the creation and pursuit of religious ideas.

With the advent of the printing press, Gutenberg forced a certain level democratization in the information dispersal space. This new model allowed a wider group of people to create and consume written content. However, the creation costs were still high enough that they created a certain barrier of entry in the market due to the financial involvement required to publish a book. Over time, those barriers to entry were lowered but never to such a low level that everyone could create and distribute content.

In the early 80s, the introduction of the computer and of desktop publishing, along with some other technological changes in the printing business allowed for that barrier to drop even further. I remember starting a newspaper in college on a budget of only a few 100 dollars. For that price, I could actually print a few thousand copies of an 8 page newspapers.

With the advent of the web, those costs drop to even smaller level. While a newspaper or book could be created on the cheap, distribution was still expensive. With the advent of the public Internet, distribution costs became negligible. At that point, the new barrier to entry became a technological one: only people who knew HTML could actually create web pages.

With the advent of blogs, however, that technological barrier dropped to almost zero. Basically, know how to write and you too can become a publisher. This created an explosion of content which showed a true marketplace of idea forming.

However, it also created a sea of endless information that our current brains are unable to cope with and this is where a level of re-intermediation came in: because there was so much content being created, the blogosphere needed to have some guides that would help people navigate to what was considered good.
In a word, we created some new gatekeepers that we now know at the blogging A-list (and, to some extent, an equivalent B-list and C-list). Membership on it is limited and many have said that the way to disprove the power of the A-list is by showing that new members have appeared on it: what few are willing to admit is that the new members are really only allowed as one of these groups if they are vetted by enough existing members. This creates a self-fulfilling cycle where members of the small club of “blogs that matter” get to shape the agenda.

The Echo Effect

Because the group is relatively small, it has gained an increased importance in terms of defining what matters. Algorithmic solutions like Memeorandum (or even Google’s PageRank) help reinforce an echo effect from such small groups. Because the groups are within a category (whether it is politics or technology, the two prominent categories in that space), the impact of an individual can be increased through cross-linking between members of the blogging elite.

In the case of FON technologies, we have a company that has managed to show a wrinkle in the system: get endorsed by the core gatekeepers and you can influence the dialogue (I’ve noticed that effect myself, as my own presence within one of those groups seems to have magically opened some doors I didn’t know existed).

Because a core group of people are considered of higher relevance, what they consider important becomes the agenda. Because the blogosphere has also had some influence in terms of shaping what journalists decide to cover, this effect is now bleeding over into the non-blog world.

Creating Group Myopia?

The question, in all this, however, is whether we could be suffering from possible group myopia. What if a rumor is wrong and gets propagated by the gatekeepers? What is that impact?

The reason I am bringing this up is that I’m wondering if, by creating new gatekeepers, we could start creating a level of groupthink and ultimately increase group myopia. As the boundaries of different echo chambers are clearly defined (for example, few people on the left side of the political biosphere interact with people on the right side (and vice-versa)), are we going to see more polarization going forward.

The next question (and I’m not sure but I suspect that the same is true in non-blog media) is how we deal with this? Is there a way to ensure that all voices are given equal weight? Many people say that the problem is self-correcting but it still seems to me that issues could arise that would not only increase the power of top ranked bloggers but also help in force the dialogue in one direction or another.

I do not have answers for this but I hope that this entry will provoke discussion and would like to see what others have to offer as solutions to this problem. On the other hand, if I fail to influence the gatekeepers, I suspect that this entry will disappear into obscurity until a gatekeeper decides to discuss the same issue.

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