Gatekeeping the gatekeepers

“‘The algorithm knows best’ is now a laughably naive position to take, even for the companies that initially pushed that narrative.”

Next year the focus is going to be on gatekeeping mechanics. Who decides what is good? What is “good”? Because the problem with gatekeeping in media is both its overreach and absence. There is wood rot and some slats missing. We might need new gates.

Let’s start with the missing slats.

Now, ten years ago, someone answering this question might have predicted the rise of “curated content.” Instead, content ballooned as clickbait, hot takes, and, yes, fake news. Value of information is alienated from the volume of traffic a piece receives. Readers know this; many of them have experienced it firsthand, like watching a frivolous tweet of theirs go viral, while an important point, made subtly, sits on the timeline, with few likes or retweets. The abundance of content and cynicism about it means real demand for vetted digests and careful recommendation. Nuzzel is interesting, but the really great work in this space is (human-) edited newsletters like The New York Times’ California Today. Next year we might see high profile collaborations to highlight work from various archives.

“The algorithm knows best” is now a laughably naive position to take, even for the companies that initially pushed that narrative. I would not be surprised if Netflix or Hulu reached out to Letterboxd power users to organize playlists next year, kind of like how fashion brands ask influential people on Instagram to create an “edit” of their collections. And for what it’s worth, if Twitter Moments weren’t so understaffed, I think people would be talking about it as the one thing the platform is doing right.

The wood rot calls for a systematic approach.

This year, we learned a number of media figures and institutions have been trading in false prestige. Gatekeeping was never as simple as “this is good” and “that is bad,” but the recent wave of sexual assault and harassment scandals revealed some hidden gears in the process. Much of the resulting commentary considers it in wider context, including abuse of power that might not be sexual in nature, but nevertheless encumbers women and people of color in their careers. After Matt Lauer was revealed as a workplace predator, social media users immediately brought up Ann Curry’s firing five years prior. When the story about Lorin Stein’s misconduct at the Paris Review broke, the conversation quickly moved to Brigid Hughes, and how she was erased from the magazine’s institutional history. Who exactly found Lauer’s hosting ability superior to Curry’s or Stein’s contributions to literature more worthwhile than the work of Hughes? Could it be that the gatekeepers need an extra set of eyes? Well, they have a whole Twitter stream full of eyes on them now.

A lot of these predators are themselves cultural gatekeepers. As the title of one of Rebecca Traister’s incisive pieces at The Cut put it, “Our national narratives are still being shaped by lecherous, powerful men.” Stein passed on a story written by one of Charlie Rose’s victims. Then there’s the abusive Amazon executive who passed on projects like “The Handmaid’s Tale” and “Big Little Lies” in favor of work by, um, abusers like Woody Allen and David O. Russell.

What other qualified people were denied jobs, fellowships, and opportunities? What was fished out and what remains in publication slush piles? Who passed on the book proposals and pitches worthy of our attention? It is not enough to wonder about hypothetical women and people of color who never got a chance. I think there is going to be a big push for stories that name the qualified people who were shut out. I expect more profiles like this one, on Karyn Kusama’s limited career opportunities in contrast with her peers like Darren Aronofsky or Christopher Nolan. I also expect broader discussion about biases and criteria. A bit of light shined on selection processes — traditionally conducted in secrecy — might help us arrive at fairer methods to uncover truly great work.

Joanne McNeil is currently working on a book about internet users for FSG.

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