The Growing Power of Network Gatekeepers

In a previous post, I had written that because anyone can produce, reproduce and disseminate a product on the Web at a low cost and from virtually anywhere, traditional models and theories of journalistic gatekeeping become less relevant. However, a lack of space considerations means that Web users must still rely on some sort of gatekeeping process to sift through the overwhelming mass of information available. So what is that gatekeeping mechanism?


Although a definitive answer has yet to be discovered, in a content analysis of four leading communications journals from 1995 to 2007, Barzilai-Nahon (2008) found that the concept of gatekeeping was mentioned in only 98 of the 2,796 articles published during the period and, when it was, it was used as an illustrative metaphor or symbol rather than treated as its own theoretical framework.


Despite the lack of disciplinary research, one theory that has attempted to account for the ambiguity of gatekeeping in online networks is Barzilai-Nahon’s network gatekeeping theory. On collaborative web portals and social networks, although a large portion of the news is still produced and framed by traditional gatekeepers, users can participate in both the news consumption and dissemination processes by offering feedback and comments on a particular selection, even if they do not post it themselves. As a result, traditional news outlets may be only the first or, as is often the case among Digg.com users, the last link in a chain of sources and hyperlinks.


On these collaborative news portals like Digg.com, which celebrate being free of traditional editorial authority but reward good gatekeeping by their users, has the power of traditional gatekeeping theory merely changed hands? What do successful Digg.com users circumvent to gain that editorial authority, a traditional gatekeeper or each other?


Thorough explorations of the motivations of network gatekeepers will ultimately be a first step in determining if news sharing on social networks and collaborative web portals is polarizing users and trivializing the content they share or, as I would argue, greatly enhancing the breadth, if not quality, of online discourse.