On gatekeepers and opensource

Opensource communities have always had some form of moderation.

Sometimes they are called “the core“, sometimes they are referred to as “1000lb gorillas”, and sometimes they’re just called “moderators”. The term itself doesn’t matter, but the function represented by the term does matter.

Unless the term itself is wrong.

Like “gatekeeper”. [Yup, this was partially triggered by some of the Rogers/Searls/Finkelstein debate. But only partially. The true kernel for this post was a piece by FactoryJoe which I will come to later.]

Why do I think it’s wrong? Let me try to explain. To keep the argument simple I am going to compare “gatekeeper” with “moderator”. This is not some deep semantic exercise going into the etymology of each word; it is nothing more than my personal view on what the terms conjure up, and the contexts they tend to get used in.

  • A gatekeeper checks your credentials before he lets you in, the default is access denial; a moderator assumes you are in unless some simple overarching community principle is broken by you, the default is access approval.
  • A gatekeeper protects a narrow entry into an exclusive space; a moderator seeks to prevent an open space from being polluted.
  • A gatekeeper provides the credentials he later checks; a moderator neither provides credentials nor checks them.
  • A gatekeeper is a concept rooted in hierarchy; a moderator is a participant in a network, although sometimes moderators have supernode status within the network. In this context the moderator operates, in a Gladwellian sense, as part-maven, part-connector. And the connections tend to operate on a soft-touch-weak-interaction network-oriented basis rather than a Pyramid-Selling exploitative strong interaction which is hierarchical in nature.
  • Moderators need the deep domain knowledge that mavens have, and the wide social networks that connectors have; gatekeepers need authority from on high within the hierarchy, like parking wardens and ticket inspectors have.
  • Gatekeepers are about exclusion. Moderators are about inclusion.
  • Gatekeepers can be automated; moderators can’t.

I could go on, but I won’t. What I wanted to do was get a worthwhile debate going, so that I can learn from it, and hope that the community learns as well. How will I know? Simple, the market/community will tell me. Many comments and links, the snowball works. None or few, the post will atrophy into nothingness. The market decides.

The essence of democratised innovation, be it opensource software or for that matter the blogosphere, is enfranchisement of all. Which is what a moderator seeks to do. The essence of what a gatekeeper does is enfranchisement of a few. Which is about as counter to opensource thinking as is humanly possible.

So when I read Chris Messina’s recent post on Building a Better Mousetrap, I was thinking “Oh dear, gatekeeping, path pollution” and not “Wow, enabling”. Maybe I’m wrong; I’d love to find out otherwise. Here are a few quotes from Chris’s post:

  • The problem that I see is Google’s ability to shut out third party services once you’ve imported yourself into the proverbial gLife.
  • In simplest terms, with the state we’re in with centralized authentication in web applications, it’s like waiting for Microsoft and Apple to strike a deal enabling you to copy and paste from Appleworks to Word.
  • To put it in greater perspective: Web2.0 should have been the “great wide opening” — that is, where you could be in utter control of your data and move it in and out of services at your whim, just as you can with your money, in and out of banks depending on the quality and diversity of services they offer. And indeed, they’ve got to compete just to keep your business

Great post, Chris.

Ability to shut out. Centralised authentication. Rather than the “great wide opening”. In other words, gatekeeping rather than moderation.

This is why getting identity and authentication and permissioning right is critical for a functioning Web 2.0; this is why getting IPR and DRM right is critical for a functioning Web 2.0; this is why getting an internet that is neutral to what’s in the bits is critical for a functioning Web 2.0.

Otherwise what we will have is a Web 2.0 that is less than Web 1.0 ever was, and a pitiful shadow of what it could have been. That’s like building planes and then ensuring by law rather than by technology that they can’t fly. And that’s why I’m confused.

An aside on the “mathematics of opensource”, a rule of thumb that I’ve seen work:

For every 1000 visitors/lurkers you get around 80 active participants; of the 80 active participants you get maybe 20 hyperactives. These hyperactives often form the core, the 1000lb gorilla, the moderators.

And guess what? These moderators don’t get elected, blessed or knighted into place as a result of some grace and favour by a ruling monarch. They vote themselves in to that place by active (and valuable) participation. Participation that needed no prior authentication or credentials. Just their brains and their willingness to participate. Participation that generates value to the community.

I think this rule of thumb works for the blogosphere as well. I know many so-called A-listers, but nothing in their behaviour makes me think of gatekeeping. Open access. Nobody owns it Everyone can use it Anyone can improve it. That’s how these A-list people have behaved with me.

It is possible that some of the access I’ve had was bequeathed upon me as a result of my title or my status. I can’t discount that. But most of the time, in my experience, people don’t even ask me what I do, they use something that is more akin to a trusted domain approach. And perhaps, as a consequence, there is something that looks like gatekeeping to those who look for something like gatekeeping.

But it’s not gatekeeping.

Moderators connect. Gatekeepers channel. Connected, not channelled.

10 thoughts on “On gatekeepers and opensource”

  1. This a slightly adolescent reaction to the term “gatekeeper” – as if you object to someone taking “your” toy away?…

    Moderators only work effectively in your holy grail if they have permission / consensus to do so. What if the actives overwhelm the hyper-actives (either by weight of numbers or by infighting / boredom of the hyperactives – both happen)?

    To stop the community being destroyed the outnumbered moderators have to increase their influence by becoming gatekeepers – enabling good contributors to florish in a space free of the work of tidying up after the bad.

    Anarchy never works in the long run but lawful societies do (modulo those making the laws being benign of course – but then the electorate is the gatekeeper to the law-maker’s power).

  2. Haven’t been called “adolescent” for a while now :-)
    Maybe I am. I guess I think this is an important issue, and the passion might be showing.
    I don’t feel comfortable with the concept of “outnumbered moderators” having to “increase their influence” by “becoming gatekeepers”. You do not increase influence by imposing control.
    If a moderator loses influence (which can happen) others will take his place. The community decides. And it’s not an election with a fixed term to follow.
    I think that’s what happened with Sun and Java.
    If the actives “overwhelm” the hyperactives they themselves become hyperactive, this is not an us-or-them distinction. It was just a rule of thumb and not a legalistic framework.
    A community moderated by people with the passion and commitment to uphold and enrich community values is a very powerful community. If a moderator doesn’t have that passion and commitment then he is not a moderator.
    Hyperactives will become bored if the community is dead. In which case it should be allowed to fester and decay back to dust.
    I don’t think I am preaching anarchy, in fact line one of the post says otherwise.
    But I take your point about the “adolescence”. I’ve been accused of worse things in my time. I will ponder over it.
    Thanks for the comment.

  3. The Nick Carr-inspired gatekeeper debate is quite an interesting one.

    The blogosphere is a partially egalitarian place. The ability to publish may be completely democratised, but the ability to get one’s publications read is not.

    To claim otherwise is to perpetuate (knowingly or not) Carr’s ‘innocent fraud’.

    The ‘A’ list may be so by accident, but an ‘A’ list they are nonetheless, by Technorati rank, Google rank, Feedburner subscription count or any other measure. They are simply the group of bloggers who are consistently the most linked to and the most subscribed to, and the list seems quite static (which is understandable since those new to the blogosphere commonly rely on these metrics to determine which blogs to subscribe to, perpetuating the ‘A’ list).

    They are gatekeepers of the blogosphere in the sense that their linking behaviour determines, to a large extent, who is read and who is not. Though they may wield this accidentally-acquired power benignly, it is significant power. An accidental gatekeeper is a gatekeeper nonetheless.

    Ironically it wasn’t until Nick Carr’s piece provoked such fierce (and in some cases highly personal and vitriolic) criticism — and explicit link-witholding — from some ‘A’ listers that I began to consider how their power could be misused.

    If the blogosphere is to continue to flourish then its ‘1000lb gorillas’ must actively defend the right of newcomers to challenge even its most cherished myths.

  4. Cool. As long as I don’t have to be an A-lister or Technorati ranker or even a 1000lb gorilla in order to defend the rights of newcomers to challenge anything. And I guess “cherished myth” is a bit unfair, don’t you think? “Cherished belief” is OK but myth sort of prejudges the issue….

    On the linking power bit, I have some reservations. When I was a salesman many years ago, I used to tell myself “Any fool can get AN appointment with some big luminary in a buyer, the challenge is to keep getting them, especially when you need them” .

    I think the same goes for being linked. When an A-Lister links you in to his or her blog, it gets you read. Once. But to keep getting read you have to say something of value, be a servant to your community. Goes back to what Chris Locke, Doc Searls and Hugh Macleod have been saying for a long time now.

    So if a blogger is only as good as his next post…..

    Keep that debate going. Ian, Stu, thanks for “dropping by”.

  5. JP — some myths turn out to be true of course, but yes, cherished beliefs is probably better… ;-)

    I would like to think that to keep getting read, you simply need to say something of value once you’ve been ‘A-linked’.

    But I suspect that sadly the frequency with which you continue to be A-linked is a more important factor. Indeed the fact that your citations are all mutually-linking A listers seems to back this up!

    What would be really interesting is a Technorati Rank timeseries plot showing gainers/losers in the top 100 over time. This would illustrate how entrenched the A list really is…

  6. JP said – “Hyperactives will become bored if the community is dead. In which case it should be allowed to fester and decay back to dust.”

    It all depends on what the community is “for”. As hyper-actives fade away, for whatever reason, and a group of actives become the next hyper-actives, the “community” may be seen as a vibrant, active and evolving space. All very enjoyable.

    But what if you want to get something actually *done*? If you find that the Judean People’s Front has evolved into the People’s Front of Judea what do you do? Hugh MacLeod, who can hardly be accused of “not getting it”, had to become a gatekeeper to facilitate a discussion actually making progress.

    If a community exists only for its own existance – and so many blogs and blog groups are just that: mutual appreciation societies simply enjoying a meandering chinwag – then the “order out of chaos” evolutionary approach is obviously enjoyable.

    But what if you have a vision of of something you want to acheive? Wikipedia, the darling of the 2.0 sect, is dying simply because the energetic have bullied out and bored the knowledgeable.

    Moderation / Gatekeeping is not an either / or. There’s a continuum that includes: order from chaos, emergent community, moderation, gatekeeping, leadership, control (though maybe not in that order)

  7. Like your continuum. Maybe I have assumed more than you have in the existence of discipline within an empowered community. So I tend to leave out gatekeeping and want to try and reduce control.

    Leadership is key.

    Any organisation, whether community or commercial firm, exists to achieve some common objectives. Allocates resources to achieve them. Prioritises and reprioritises as needed via active feedback loops, which may be external as well as internal. In the case of open communities, behaviour that militates against the common values of that community needs to be minimised. But with soft hands.

    So maybe we’re back at semantics. I see gatekeepers and controllers as more heavy handed, more exclusive, than you do.

    I am uncomfortable with the exclusions, because they have a greater negative effect than is intended.
    Thanks for the comments.

  8. I suspect it a continuum as Ian Rogers suggested, but a fairly narrow one. JP’s initial points hold, meaning at some point fairly early on in the continuum you tip from “default allow” into “default deny” with all that that implies.

    Moderators are not always chosen or supported by the community. Many sites have discussion forums that are there primarily in support of the main purpose of the site, rather than being its main purpose. Frequently the site owner moderates those forums, or selects trusted community members to do so — e.g., hierarchy rather than community determined their status. But they still moderate, in that by default comments are posted and then only removed if necessary (according to the moderators). This seems to me to be a step along the continuum.

    Continua being what they are, it’s easy to move along them without meaning to. Your musing on the topic reminded me of the value of regularly evaluating the roles one’s playing and encouraging others to play — pausing (in this case) to ask: Am I moderating or gatekeeping? Am I acting in a way that will engender the community I want to see?

    Thanks for that.

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