Time business columnist Justin Fox questioned the success of the new media methods in a recent post “The reign of the enthusiasts“.
He suggests the algorithms that proudly surface the deep dark corners of the Internet are actually just self-referential popularity contests. When searching for his name Justin found that the articles he’s written that are likely most influential in the real world fail to rank higher than the articles he’s written which attracted the most link love from media-obsessed blogger types, like myself.
“There are web2topians out there–Battelle and my friend Matt McAlister immediately spring to mind–who are convinced that the Googles (and Diggs and del.icio.uses and Amazons and Last.fms) of the future will do a vastly better job of steering people to what they want, such a good job that most of the gatekeepers of the current media universe will prove wholly extraneous.”
This isn’t the first time someone has accused me of being a Web 2.0 blogger. Coincidentally, the same day Justin posted this, I was mocked by a local construction worker waiting for the bus with his buddies as I passed on my way to the office. He shouted to nobody in particular,
“Man, you know what I hate? Dotcommers.” He watched me walk by stonefaced and waited for a response. The guys standing around him turned to look. Unsure still, he blurted out, “Architects, too. Hate all of them.” He got the laugh he was looking for.
Jeez, am I that boring? Or that obvious and annoying? (Please don’t say anything. I think I know the answer.)
Anyhow, Justin’s question is top-of-mind for a lot of people in the media business. Where I disagree with him and the wisdom of the media industry crowd is on the notion of “gatekeepers” or rather the need for them at all.
Perhaps the most important part of being successful in media is distribution, and the reason we’re asking what the role of the gatekeeper is today is because the Internet has disintermediated the media distribution models that helped them become gatekeepers in the first place.
Online search changed the way people access relevant information, and those who once thought of themselves as gatekeepers suddenly found themselves at the mercy of the link police, the new gatekeepers, the search engines.
Yet, Justin’s explanation of the weakness of Google’s algorithm is exactly what I think many people who get mocked for their trendy glasses, old man sport coats, carefully orchestrated facial hair events, designer shoes and man purses (I don’t have a man purse) all see improving with the introduction of explicit and implicit human data into the media distribution model. The act of hyperlinking to a web page is not a strong enough currency to hold together a market of information as big as the Internet has become in recent years. It’s a false economy.
But the link currency opened the door to the idea of using behavior to help people find things. I love Last.fm not just for the music it recommends to me but because it proves this to be true. The Internet is made of people, people with a wide range of knowledge, tastes, and interests.
Now, there will always be a role for experts, and there are many cases where being an expert is not just subjective. Experts are hugely influential on the Internet as they are in other media. But I don’t see that a gatekeeper is an expert by definition.
There will also always be a role for enablers. Good enablers are often community builders who understand the rhythms of human psychology and emotion. Henry Luce was such a man, and I think he might have been a very successful web2topian today.
If those who call themselves “gatekeepers” want to share their expertise in valuable ways, then they will need to understand how the role of human data helps with distribution of that expertise. If those who aim to be enablers of communities want to be relevant, they will find ways to do that in many of the social technologies that have proven successful in this new world.
Similarly, if the people Justin affectionately refers to as web2topians appear smug, glib or arrogant when talking about media, then they are only doing themselves and everyone in the business a disservice. Gatekeepers know better than anyone that expertise does not by definition make you important. That’s a lesson the Internet generation will learn the hard way when someday they become irrelevant, too, I’m sure.