Crowds vs. Gatekeepers: Not a Zero-Sum Game

Mediocrity by mercurialn
Mediocrity by mercurialn

“It’s bullshit! Crowds have terrible taste… If you let the people decide, then nothing truly adventurous ever gets out. And that’s a problem.”

–Christopher R. Weingarten (@1000TimesYes), #140Conf

Speaking at the 140 Characters Conference — a brazenly opportunistic affair best described as “a meeting of Twitter Early Adopters Anonymous” and the “biggest circle jerk of nothingness” — Weingarten’s rant has been called elitist by some, but it reiterated a point I’ve been harping on for a while now: the “wisdom of the crowds” is overrated.

The mythical “crowds” give us the bland mediocrity that dominates the bestseller lists in books and music, Hollywood’s Box Office and Nielsen’s TV ratings, at local poetry slams and on the crowded shelves of bodegas across the country! Of course, the flip side of that argument is that in every one of those examples, there’s a gatekeeper involved — a publisher, producer, writer, curator, marketer or buyer — giving the crowd what [they think] they want.

Times are changing and appealing to mediocrity isn’t quite as profitable as it used to be; the over-leveraged, over-extended, value-extracting publishers that have thrived on it for years are in trouble because they’re simply too big to change direction. Most of them will be gone or unrecognizably splintered in the next 5-10 years, and good riddance!

Make no mistake about it, however, you are committing an act of rebellion with every new channel you support. The record labels and major networks are starting to realize they cannot make money anymore. Soon they will realize the nagging truth that some of us have been shouting from the town square for years: The artists and the fans no longer need them… YOU are my record label.

–Matthew Ebel, You Are The Revolution

Hyperbole aside, Ebel’s point is a valid one. As has been noted ad nauseum lately, the Internet has leveled the playing field, theoretically enabling everyone to be a publisher, a marketer, a critic and a consumer. The democratization of the gatekeeper’s role hasn’t led to the increased creation nor consumption of quality content, though; quite the opposite, actually.


In a post titled “How We Killed Social Media“, IttyBiz’s Naomi Dunford eloquently notes the deterioration of Digg, StumbleUpon and, as their increased popularity and influence led to their becoming watered down and useless:

Is this seriously the best of the Internet? The best of the best? The crème de la crème? We added shit to the wine and then wondered why the wine tasted like shit.

Wine-making is an art, and the best, most cherished wines have a unique terroir that trumps both cutesy labels and common grapes. Publishing great content is no different.

I believe the trick, the fabled “magic bullet”, for self-appointed gatekeepers of all kinds, is to be an idea advocate — to represent something specific (terroir), something you have a real passion for; to create and/or curate the best content relevant to that passion; and to offer it in a context that’s most appealing to others who share that passion, empowering them to interact with it, share it with others, and even contribute to it.

There’s a rich and vibrant world at the opposite end of mediocrity, and it represents the real future of publishing — a crowdsourced AND gatekeepered future that leverages the strengths of both into a mutually beneficial, value-ADDED relationship that serves the needs of their unique communities.

“Wisdom of the crowds” be damned.

15 thoughts on “Crowds vs. Gatekeepers: Not a Zero-Sum Game

  1. I would disagree that the increase in consumption of “quality” content hasn't increased… I believe it has, quite a bit. The problem is that the ratio of quality content versus “Ouch, My Balls” videos on YooToob has been thrown way off. The noise may be overpowering the signal right now, but that signal is stronger than it used to be.

    I believe what will happen in the future is we will find NEW gatekeepers. Record labels, like clothing labels, used to mean something. You would buy a pair of jeans because you trusted the designer, just as you would buy a record because you believed the label only worked with quality acts. These days, you must find someone to trust.

    YouTube as a whole is full of shit, but there are people making their own Channels of what they perceive as quality content. Indie music is predominantly shit as well, so you listen to quality podcasts like Accident Hash or the CD Baby Music Discovery podcast.

    The gatekeepers still exist… the revolutionary change is that those gatekeepers are democratized as much as the content creators.


  2. Fair point on the signal being stronger, but since the noise has increased exponentially, too, I question if it's really become any easier to find that great content. Totally agree with you on the question of trust and the democratization of gatekeepers, though.

    Thanks for stopping by!

  3. Actually, I don't think it IS easier to find the great content… quite the opposite. For years, we've been trained that major label = good because, once upon a time, major labels represented solid talent. Now you can have your own TV show and multiple album deals all because your daddy's Billy Ray Cyrus.

    I see us in the midst of a power vacuum, much like any revolution. After the American revolution it wasn't all peace and synergy, we struggled to figure out our own laws and power structure… we couldn't just go to the king with our grievances, we had to figure out who represented us.

    The same is true now: Record labels and major networks are bleeding influence and trust and, until we find the right taste makers to follow, there will be chaos. If you aren't comfortable with the noise level, don't look for new artists, look for new podcasts or channels on Pandora radio.

    (This is all a very long-winded way of saying I agree with you, btw, I just have hope for the future.) =)


  4. Hi Guy, this is a good post, and I agree with you and Matthew here: it is harder to find “quality” content, at the same time that more of it is out there, swimming in a lot of mediocre and amateur stuff. In the Poetic Industrial Complex, the internet and digital print have made it much easier and cost effective to publish, and this is great for the many of us who will never gain Billy Collins stature (and here I only mean reputation and not the caliber of poetry which I think is trite). I also don't know how much I believe in poetry democracy when poetry democracy comes to mean anything goes, because it can. I like what Matthew says here about finding gatekeepers that we can trust to provide quality content versus finding the work of people who know how to get connected with the “right” people or how to maximize exposure via social networking et al – and substitute these things for actually putting in the work itself.

  5. What's funny is that it's akin to the first decade of poetry slams, when the “democratization of poetry” was all the rage and new gatekeepers arose in every city in the form of slammasters. Some really great communities were born, amazing new voices were nurtured, all the earmarks of a minor cultural revolution (a power vacuum, if you will) were in place… and then it slowly went to shit once the media took notice.

    Nowadays, the average slam is about as dull and uninspired as the dry, academic readings they were created in protest of. Interestingly, the lines have blurred, and poets that can mix an engaging performance with strong craft are finding success in both performance and academic circles.

    There's a lesson there for traditional and new media publishers alike, I think.

  6. lesson? if you pedal crap as gold for long enough, someone will buy it?

    who read the reply he's replying to before the article itself and now realizes that his normally snide reply is even more cantankerous than originally intended which is to say that his reply is now cantankerous versus snide.

  7. Crowds don't lead to better ideas or content unless the crowds are made up of people good at ideas and content. Just like learning to type won't make you Stephen King and owning a movie camera won't turn you into Martin Scorcese. There's a lot of bad content no doubt. But the best movies or tv shows still have directors. The best ad agencies have creative directors. Great magazines and publishers have editors. It's for a reason. They're not all created equal. Just as it's true not everyone with a video camera can create good content, not everyone with a gatekeeper job is a good judge. A lot this is subjective, just look at the views or stars on some of the crap on YouTube. Right now we're still in an age when all of this is new. The ability to create, share, comment on is only a few years old. A lot of people just want to hear themselves talk and others simply want to connect. None of the new technology or sm platforms will make any content better, it will only give us more options to create it, distribute it and find it. We will still need the “idea generators” to come up with it, and we will still need good taste to evaluate it.

  8. Yes! All content is not created equal, nor is it curated or contextualized equally, but there's a cottage industry on the conference circuit for those willing to pretend otherwise. As your post earlier today noted (, the tools are available for anyone to use, but using them doesn't automagically make someone a writer, publisher or marketer. “Gatekeeper” is a dirty word right now, but good curators add value while empowering the crowds, too.

  9. Yes! All content is not created equal, nor is it curated or contextualized equally, but there's a cottage industry on the conference circuit for those willing to pretend otherwise. As your post earlier today noted (, the tools are available for anyone to use, but using them doesn't automagically make someone a writer, publisher or marketer. “Gatekeeper” is a dirty word right now, but good curators add value while empowering the crowds, too.

  10. Digg, reddit, and every other thing like them turn into shit because the trend to all such sites are to become cultish. A hierarchy of gatekeepers eventually emerges from the sludge — those who post the most. Those who aren't in are out — and that includes most of the people who read such sites. This is why when I read of new “eBook” ventures proclaiming they will have a “community component,” I cringe. They don't know what they're setting themselves up for down the road. Keeping a community *flat* is the answer, but no one has yet shown me a solution that works.

  11. Bravo! Great post. Much of what rises to the top on the Internet is pretty mindless. However, the web is also a great way for intelligent niche artists to find an audience. Think Lily Allen, in music. Of course, behind Lily Allen is a great producer with a vision. This is the kind of thing I'd like to see more of in book publishing.

  12. >>>**cough**YOUTUBE**cough***

    Well what does every wanker with a phonecam have to do with *publishing*? You think cat vids and happy-slappers ever had a *market* for that?! And I'd counterargue that the quality of YouTube is *higher* than TV — *if you know where to look*. Those TED videos, for one, which would never appear on TV at all (not even on one of the niche 1,000 channels out there). And when Veoh was around, there were people doing actual *serials* and they were more interesting than most of the crap on “professional” TV. (Those people went to Veoh because it supported longer videos, had better discovery, and I think also had revenue-sharing before YouTube.)

    Techmeme is curated. Do you see the sorry state of the crap they highlight there?

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