In the late 1950s, Kurt Lewin formulated a communication model in which information flows through channels separated by gates – points where information is filtered, relayed, or withheld. The decision is made on the basis of objective rules, or is made discretionally by a “gatekeeper”.
The example Lewin described involved a mother deciding what kind of food would be served on the family table. But the theory of a human communication filter became popular not only with nutritionists but also, and especially, with media theorists. 20th-century press titles, publishing houses, film studios, radio and TV channels had one thing in common: a gatekeeper controlling the flow of information. The gatekeeper is usually embodied by the editor-in-chief, but it can also be the given title’s main sponsor, or a political censor blocking unwelcome content.
Objectively, gatekeepers exist because media channels have limited throughput capacity; the latter results directly from high production and distribution costs. In the past, besides generating content, it was also necessary to select it. In practice, however, the gate guarded by the gatekeeper is a position of power. The process of selection isn’t objective: it shapes editorial lines, takes people or content off the air or puts them on, turns people into stars or keeps them in obscurity.
But the 20th century ended a decade ago and media, previously directed at the mass audience, are now being reoriented towards a growing number of specialised niches while new means of content production and distribution have arrived with the onset of digital technologies. One of the most significant changes brought about by the digital revolution has been a sharp drop in production and distribution costs. In other words, communication channels have suddenly increased in throughput. The new, digital, culture is thus characterised by a lack of gatekeepers (which explains the nervous comments that we are surrounded by “digital chaos”). One can create content as often as one wants and of any data size because the internet has room for it anyway, and at near-zero cost.
In the 21st-century media ecosystem, “gated” media coexist with “non-gated” ones. All of them, if only they have anything to do with digital communication, pass through one gate (albeit a global one): the internet. The latter has, however, been deliberately designed as a neutral gatekeeper (David Isenberg goes as far as to call the Web stupid, which he considers a virtue): it lets everything through.
The infoglut has to be filtered though, so every one of us, the receivers, has to act as a gatekeeper. Instead of being selected at the broadcasting end, in the new model information is pulled through a gate at the receiving end. An ordinary individual has no competence however to act as an effective gatekeeper for the virtually infinite mass of information made available by the benevolent fool, the internet.
Despite prophecies that the digital media would scrap middlemen, new gatekeepers have emerged – among the most important ones today are search engines. Seemingly neutral, they decide in thousands of ways what information content we ultimately select. Also the collective wisdom of the mass audience is becoming a new kind of gatekeeper in the shape of the so called folksonomies: content catalogues created collectively by Web users and representing a filtering alternative to search engines.
As receivers, we are thus still at gatekeepers’ mercy. As authors however, we have freedom: tools to generate and publish content, user accounts on the popular network sites. From this perspective, the idea of installing traditional gatekeepers in the digital circuit looks rather démodé.
translated by Marcin Wawrzyńczak