January 20th, 2006

Who Are the New Media Gatekeepers?

by

Who decides what’s worthy of your attention — a Web 2.0 application, a newspaper columnist, a talk show host, an editorial staff, an influential blogger, a community of thousands, a community of millions?

(UPDATE: Oy vey, this post is NOT about getting links, although it’s completely my fault that it’s been misread that way. It’s about the question above and the questions raised in the second half. I’ve had a lot of interesting debate on the questions of “gatekeepers” and would welcome more.)

I’ve been thinking about this question a lot this past week as I’ve tried to make it past the gatekeepers of the blogosphere, to varying degrees of success (and ignominious failure). It all came to a head yesterday when — against all odds — one of my posts spent the entire day on tech.memeorandum. I’m not sure how it got there in the first place, but it started a virtuous cycle of reading and linking, then more reading and more linking, until it had as much stickiness as all the blogging about the subpoenaing of Google’s search records and the sale of sex.com. The same post also made it briefly onto the front page of Reddit before starting a steady decline — it stayed in the top 50 for much of the day. It was also on del.icio.us/popular the last time I checked. (Site stats tell me the post appeared on trendalicious!, but by the time I got there it was gone. UPDATE: Since I wrote this, del.icio.us/popular has become the new rainmaker.)

All in all, quite ironic, given my rag on Web 2.0 media applications. But then maybe not, since I was aiming at the sacred cow of the geeks who use these apps (I use the term “geek” respectfully, since I’m one too), which has a way of “getting under the skin,” as Mathew Ingram put it. Needless to say, my traffic doubled.

Contrast the exposure and traffic I got through Web 2.0 sites with what I got through the “A-list” bloggers I emailed directly:

BuzzMachine — Some traffic from trackbacks, but despite corresponding with Jeff Jarvis by email (he’s a great guy), I haven’t made it through Jeff’s rigorous filter (part of why he’s so widely read).
Scripting News — Dave Winer didn’t take kindly to one of my earlier posts (which he found on his own). His mention generated good traffic, but despite Dave’s willingness to discuss it by email, I suspect I’m permanently off his radar.
Micro Persuasion — Steve Rubel took flack for his post suggesting that wannabes need to get noticed by the B-list blogs first. Scott Baradell took Steve to task for this, and he recanted, but I emailed Steve and only got a terse “no thank you.”

I’m not suggesting there’s anything wrong here — these influential bloggers are one-man operations, and they only have 24 hours in the day like the rest of us. But the “system” is starting to feel a lot like Old Media, with the high-traffic blogs acting as gatekeepers for the blogosphere’s attention.

(UPDATE: Richard MacManus at Read/WriteWeb included this article in his great Read/WriteWeb Daily filter, and reminded me that I need to give thanks to the great bloggers who have given me a chance — some of them haven’t agreed with me, but that can only be a good thing. Mathew Ingram, who enjoys disagreeing with me, replaced my article as the root post on techmemeorandum and is probably getting some well-deserved attention. Richard refers in his citation to our correspondence by email, which I’ve enjoyed with him and many others — this is the great reward.)

The problem here (there’s always a problem), is not that the best bloggers have earned their place in the spotlight, but that there are so many good bloggers — I can’t read them all, and I’m having a helluva time choosing among the hundreds of feeds in my reader (I won’t start on RSS, I won’t, I won’t, I won’t…okay).

That said, I think the bigger problem with media gatekeeping lies beyond the bubble of the blogosphere. If I want to reach an audience of Old Media executives who are wrestling with the painful transition to New Media, I don’t think tech.memeorandum is going to cut it. It’s not that none of them read it — it’s a matter of media fundamentals. Tech.memeorandum is highly efficient for reaching fellow geeks in the blogosphere, but much less efficient for reaching outside of it. (I did get quoted in one non-blog, WebProNews — interesting that they feature content from “A-list” bloggers, e.g. Steve Rubel, Robert Scoble, who they call “Expert Authors.”)

I have the same problem with Technorati, which drives steady traffic, but I suspect it’s still used only by the technorati (hence it is well-named — and while we’re on the subject, when are they going to update their crumby database? — it shows 51 links to Publishing 2.0, but then my rank is only based on 22 links.)

Maybe I’ll have to do an outreach to some Old Media gatekeepers, like Folio or Editor & Publisher. (I’m wondering how many blogging media commentators have ever “picked up” either of those media business standards — if you really want to understand Old Media’s dilemma, read this from Folio, “The World’s Toughest Transition” — I’ll be picking up on that theme in a future article.)

So here’s the really big question — as Old Media gatekeepers fade, who will ultimately take there place? Will it be thousands of micro-gatekeepers (oh, my head hurts), or will there emerge a handful of new uber-gatekeepers (like the three TV networks)? No doubt I’ll be knocked around for suggesting there’s even a chance that it won’t be the former — but not so fast.

Lloyd Shepherd of Guardian Unlimited uses a critique of Digg to raise some interesting questions about the micro-gatekeeper model:

Another point about this: digg.com is obviously not the only “participatory media” site out there. Its 140,000 users also use other sites (Slashdot, for example), while there are millions of other users who don’t use digg at all. The number of people “participating” is spread across more and more sites. If the wisdom of crowds counts for something (and I believe it does, of course), then how big and active does the crowd have to be before it becomes wise?

All of which is a long-winded introduction to the core question: are 50 digg users more “representative” of the 140,000 digg users? Or is a group of GU editors more representative of the GU community? In my more militant moments I’ve often wondered how GU would look if we handed over the front page to the 12 million unique monthly users – would it be more reflective of the community, or less? Isn’t it probable that, actually, all that would appear on the front page would be stories around issues on which people tend to hold “extreme” positions, so they are prepared to work harder to force those issues to the fore?

Justin Fox, Editor-at-Large at Fortune, also poses some fascinating questions about the public good in Out with old media; in with… what?:

This is not an unprecedented state of affairs — big American cities used to have lots of different newspapers, each with pronounced political leanings and articles explicitly shaded to reinforce those leanings. There is nothing natural or inherently superior about the monolithic media institutions of the mid-to-late 20th century.

But there is still a need for the community-building, consensus-shaping role that the best of the media gatekeepers can play. The question is, who’s going to play it? And how are they going to make it work economically?

There are the existing gatekeepers, of course: Network TV, newspapers, mass-circulation magazines. Some may survive and thrive. But they’ll have to do without economic advantages they enjoyed in the past. Newspapers in particular are in a panic right now.

But it does raise some subversive thoughts: Are Americans willing to pay for what’s good for them? Are there great new fortunes to be made in telling us what to pay attention to, or is this business of media gatekeeping going to be chiefly a sideline (think Oprah Winfrey and her book club)? Is there a role for public broadcasting as the last uniting, subsidized medium?

(Yeah, how about a gatekeeper funded by Congress?)

So will it be “meet the new boss, same as the old boss” — are we going to get fooled yet again?

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