Friday, May 06, 2005

Garfunkel on 'The New Gatekeepers'

Jon Garfunkel, software engineer and proprietor of Civilities.net, has five parts of "The New Gatekeepers." There's still a conclusion yet to come, but enough is up now to make it worth your time to read.

Garfunkel works from the construct that a small group of A-list bloggers has effectively become the new gatekeepers by their interlinking and ability to attract links from elsewhere. In the process, it is possible to create "information cascades" that can be harmful.

This is not a new thing; groupthink and clumping have been around for some time. The bloggerati -- all of us -- are engaged in a little bit of both. I see it in the media area, though Garfunkel expands it to the political arena that I don't follow as closely through blogs.

Rosen cites Jarvis, who cites Gillmor, who cites Jarvis, who cites Mernit (as do some of the others), etc. The same people show up at conferences. Citizen journalism is held in high esteem -- I'm one of those who does that -- although I'm betting that when we do the retrospective a decade from now that while there will be more participation, it will be from far fewer people than we had hoped.

That's human nature. And serendipity does happen. Through a post on one of these sites I discovered Garfunkel, who, in another piece on Bloggers from the A-list to the Z-list does a wonderful sendup of some of bloggers' quirks, shortcomings and eccentricities.

Human nature is also why Verizon is buying MCI -- because customers are much more likely to buy the family phone pack than to go shopping to find an aggregate of cheaper individual pricing. In other words, it is possible to have less competition when the process is customer driven. And it's why Yahoo News is so popular -- people, when they pay us in time, want to invest as little as possible for as great an immediate return as possible. Yes, as Garfunkel says, we tend to prefer quantity over quality.

But it's important to consider what he says because it is too easy to go from clump to incestuous intermarriage. A couple of excerpts from various parts:

We need to have different gatekeepers to sort out the information. There is too much information of varying quality.

Rather than countering the values inherent in 24-hour all-news media, the bloggers are exacerbating them ...

But the challenge we have laid for ourselves is how to get some deserving opinions to catch on without depending on the influential "few."

Thus here is Garfunkel's hypothesis: People who blog have a much greater tendency to pass along incomplete quick impressions than balanced analyses written later by a ratio of grater than seven to one. Or, the blogosphere breeds propaganda better than the corrections. I doubt that any serious person in civil society would be proud of that ratio. And I doubt that the traditional media is anywhere close to that ratio.

The old gatekeepers and the new gatekeepers are not the same. Both, after all, influence what we watch and read. The difference is that the old gatekeepers do so by restricting information. The new gatekeepers do so by manipulating information cascades. Perhaps we shudder at the thought of information being restricted consciously. But it just may be preferable to having information manipulated without any awareness of the people involved.
Garfunkel notes that some of the very values of blogging work against finding worthy, thoughtful posts.

With blogs, there's a monolithic stream of content. The story that draws the reader's attention can only be located on top, and that by convention is the most recent piece. Thus a post that is comparatively original or important or one which the readers most want to discuss can get pushed down the page by a more recent post of any content-- a trivial observation, a link to another story, a picture of one's cat, etc. This is hastened by the popular notion that bloggers should [post] more frequently.
Further, he notes, people are more likely to read the derivative post, usually shorter, than the original piece. (How many of you will actually click through the links I've provided to read his five-part piece. No summary, such as I'm doing here, can ever do such a lengthy and multilayer rhetorical work justice. It must be examined up close and in its fullness.)

He proposes some sort of user rating system, one that would rate not only the posts but the individuals who make them. Sadly, this is the least developed part of his work so far (Part 4) and we'll have to wait for his promise to flesh out the idea in the last part.

Update: As of 5/17, Garfunkel says he has completed the work -- eight parts total. I have not had time to read the final pieces, but pass along his note about completion for those interested.
---
Garfunkel has issued (10/17) an extensive list of corrections and clarifications about his original post.
Among other things, he now says the quote, "The difference is that the old gatekeepers do so by restricting information. The new gatekeepers do so by manipulating information cascades," overstates what he meant to say:
This is not how I meant to phrase it. Manipulating is too strong a word. What I meant was: If we fear that the old gatekeepers can be restricting information, than we should also have reason to fear that the new gatekeepers can be amplifying selective information.
Walt Crawford also has some interesting commentary in Cites & Insights.

Even given Garfunkel's extensive revision of his original work, I think it remains worth reading and considering. While he acknowledges shortcomings in his data and conclusions, he raises issues that are central to the ongoing debate of media transformation and the role and effect of a constantly juiced stream of information that envelops us. His concerns that speed can ovewhelm thoroughness, and that the solution may not be found unless we change the basic information architecture.

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