more gatekeeper-y goodness

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The “A-List Gatekeeper” debate ignites again, right on schedule [it happens every 5 months or so, by my reckoning].
Nick Carr gets it going this time, followed by Michael Arrington, and Seth Finklestein piping in.
From Nick’s opening salvo:

One day, a blog-peasant boy found buried in the dust beside his shack a sphere of flawless crystal. When he looked into the ball he was astounded see a moving picture. It was an image of a fleet of merchant ships sailing into the harbor of the island of Blogosphere. The ships bore names that had long been hated throughout the island, names like Time-Warner and News Corp and Pearson and New York Times and Wall Street Journal and Conde Nast and McGraw-Hill. The blog-peasants gathered along the shore, jeering at the ships and telling the invaders that they would soon be vanquished by the brave royals in the great castle. But when the captains of the merchant ships made their way to the gates of the castle, bearing crates of gold, they were not repelled by the royals with cannons but rather welcomed with fanfares. And all through the night the blog-peasants could hear the sounds of a great feast inside the castle walls.

In Nick’s post I left the following comment:

There are basically two rules of blogging:
1. Nobody is going to read your blog unless there’s something in it for them.
2. Nobody is going to link to your blog unless there’s something in it for them.
These two rules apply to us all, A-List and Z-List alike. If you don’t like these rules, you’re better off finding an ecology whose rules you like better. Life is short.

In Seth’s blog I left the following comment:

I’m curious about the way you seperate bloggers into two distinct groups: “Gatekeepers” and “Non-Gatekeepers”.
I believe this is a false distinction. Every time you create a link to another blog, you are creating a doorway of sorts, between your blog and another blog. ie. you too are creating a gate.
Every blogger is a gatekeeper, whether he wants to admit it or not.
Or am I missing something?

What I always find most interesting every time this issue pops up is, there’s rarely any mention by the gatekeeper-conspiracy-theorists that maybe, just maybe the quality of the content is a factor in all this. Both Nick and Seth, for example, fail to mention this. Am I surprised? Not really. I’ve seen it all before, many times.
Of course, there’s nothing stopping you, or Nick, or Seth from believing that if your blog isn’t being read enough for your liking, it has nothing to do with its most excellent musings, and everything to do with some A-List Gatekeeper conspiracy to keep The Little Guy down. But that’s not an idea I’d be willing to bet my career on.
[Bonus Link:] Nice perspective on all this nonsense from Pamela Slim, whose blog, “Escape From Cubicle Nation”, I’ve only just discovered, and like a lot.

Comments

  1. Good points made Hugh. But I cannot say the discussion matters. Your last point highlights that very adequately – we all open doors IF WE WANT TO. If we don’t we can always sit back and sling mud at the A-listers exclusion conspiracy if it makes us feel better.
    The fact that I have a shitty boring blog is beside the point innit?!

  2. I hate parables; they seem patronizing to me. Thus the relevance of your last paragraph:
    “Of course, there’s nothing stopping you, or Nick, or Seth from believing that if your blog isn’t being read enough for your liking, it has nothing to do with its most excellent musings, and everything to do with some A-List Gatekeeper conspiracy to keep The Little Guy down.”
    All I heard was a lot of intellectualizing and rationalizing about why some A-list wannabees can’t cut it. The market makes the decisions. I’m reading your blog because you seem to be a bottom-line oriented, smart-ass. These are my favorite kinds of people.
    “The quality of the content” is extremely relevant to me. Your Skinnerian reductionism–
    1. Nobody is going to read your blog unless there’s something in it for them.
    2. Nobody is going to link to your blog unless there’s something in it for them.
    would make Ayn Rand pretty happy–and I like it too. I am not a player in the A-list game, I just read blogs where people have either something unique to say or they say something uniquely.
    Then there’s the professional bloggers like Tish who think you are being sexist if you point out that Heather Armstrong has a big audience because she juxtaposes maternal gushing with comments about blow-jobs and characterizes herself as a bad-ass motherfunkin’ ho.
    She gets 2,000,000 hits a month because we live in a society where people would rather read some straight up comments from a motherfuckin’ ho than crisp debate about shit you cant do anything about.

  3. hello, i couldn’t agree with you more. i am not a corporate blogger or anything, just a nobody with a knitting blog that a lot of knitters like. they like it it a LOT actually. they tell me they like it because it is full of information, funny, has great pictures (AKA knit porn), and is an unabashedly open book of one knitter’s obssession.
    just sayin’

  4. 2 things.
    1 – There IS a “Good ol’ boys club” in EVERY area of life – it often plays a significant role in propping up those at the top – in blogerdom too. Fact – get over it.
    2 – there’s no accounting for taste. Quality does not equal popularity. Look at many of the top videos on youtube – the top songs on myspace, top blogs on wordpress etc… etc… etc… see for yourself.
    and a bonus – the people on the top of whatever list you’re currently resentful for not being on usually can’t explain why they’re so popular either – so don’t bother listening to them looking for “clues” or shortcuts to “a-lister-dom”.

  5. I agree with the quality of content issue completely. We get so riled up trying to figure out if we are a Z, D+, B- or B+ blog that our energy takes us away from what we should be doing and that is writing about things that move us and our audience.
    I just wrote about our obsession with ranking and how it detracts from our purpose, even for A Listers such as Guy Kawasaki:
    http://www.escapefromcubiclenation.com/get_a_life_blog/2006/08/who_are_you_wri.html
    I don’t know about you, but I would much rather read Anne’s “knit porn” (what a totally delightful metaphor!) than beg to be let into the popular boys and girls club.
    High school was bad enough. Let’s not continue the madness.

  6. Third rule of blogging: the world’s not fair – get over it.

  7. Nice comment Jeff. Hardwork, intelligence and luck seem to grace those who suceed (and maybe a nice inheritance.) You give a good bitch-slappin’ to anyone who believes in the revisionists who are always dissecting their lives and charging the public to hear how they achieved success.
    Go to the self-help shelves in your local bookstore–its like a psychiatric clinic. If I just follow this guru’s advice…

  8. The answers to your questions are:
    1) You’re missing the crucial element of QUANTITY. It’s like saying
    “I’m curious about the way you separate income into two distinct groups: “Haves” and “Have-Nots” … Every taxpayer “has” something, whether he wants to admit it or not”. The differences are literally orders of magnitude, factors of hundreds, thousands, millions. Comparing a billionaire with a just-scraping-by person, and trying to equivalence them as “have money” would be at best treacle, and at worst deceptive. That’s precisely the hucksterism, the downright dishonest sleazy marketing playing on people’s desires, which is being condemned.
    2) On quality – Look, if you want to be like a right-wing radio talk-show host, and beat your chest and rant “Every time this discussion of poverty comes up, there’s rarely any mention by the wealth-conspiracy-theorists that maybe, just maybe rich people are rich because *they work hard*, and poor people are poor because *they don’t work hard enough*!”, I know that brings in ratings. But don’t expect me to take you seriously. I assume a passing familiarity with social theory of the past half-century. If you either don’t have that (many don’t), or you disagree with the very premises (some do), there’s simply no basis for discussion – just posturing.

  9. Hugh MacLeod says:

    I disagree with your argument, Seth. If I have a million dollars and you don’t, that means I can buy a certain type of house, and you can’t. I can send my kids to a certain school, and you can’t. I can spend my vacation in the South of France, and you can’t.
    But with blogs I can write what I want, and so can you. I can link to who I want, and so can you. And I have no more control over who links to me than you or anyone else.
    We live in interesting times.

  10. If you have a million readers, and I don’t, your statements will be heard a lot more widely than mine, and you will be able to attack me and I won’t be able to effectively reply, and you can often use that readership in monetary ways.
    Do we really need to debate this? Do we have to go through a parade of strawman about how it’s not everything, etc.
    If it didn’t matter, blog evangelism wouldn’t sell it so much.

  11. Any paragraph that uses the words “sphere of flawless crystal” gives me the willies. Even in jest. Even if it’s a catalog selling imported spheres of flawless crystals.
    But on the other hand…
    That fucking Ahmadinejad!! I totally do a better blog than him!!

  12. Seth, you won’t be able to effectively reply? What’s stopping you?
    Instead of obsessing about other people’s audiences, I would try writing stuff that other people, real people, will want to read.
    And then watch your voice magically being heard, all of a sudden.
    Funny how that works… ;-)

  13. Seth,
    I looked at your website and it seems to be a niche market. Serious stuff. You know the kind of country we live in; when asked on the street 52% of the people did not know who Thomas Jefferson was–the rest didn’t give a shit.
    How can you guys compete for preeminance in a market that is skewed toward scatology and fart jokes? I can’t wait to see your high brow response to this if you deign to respond at all. Your overpowering the market with intellect. Not that that’s a bad thing.

  14. Hugh MacLeod says:

    Jerry, I’m not that interested in mainstream acceptance- which is just as well, for I doubt I’d ever get it, even if I wanted it.
    Careerwise, what I’m interested in mostly these days is drawing cartoons, enjoying my blog, enjoying other people’s blogs, and selling Stormhoek. It’s not a huge empire, but it’s enough.

  15. “What I always find most interesting every time this issue pops up is, there’s rarely any mention by the gatekeeper-conspiracy-theorists that maybe, just maybe the quality of the content is a factor in all this. Both Nick and Seth, for example, fail to mention this. Am I surprised? Not really. I’ve seen it all before, many times.”
    Well, this is exactly the point I make, actually.
    And I agree – *enough* is enough.

  16. “You know the kind of country we live in…”
    Because after all, the internet begins and ends within the borders of the continental US.
    (sorry)
    —-
    Look, I agree that navel-gazing about the mechanics of blogging and the machinery of popularity are at best, an excuse for free reading but otherwise accomplishing and/or solving exactly nothing. But to Seth’s point, can we not honestly evaluate that machinery and observe its nature?
    I have said this perhaps obliquely in the past, and now I will be more explicit: Hugh, you have a stated interest in people “believing in [whatever]“. Belief is often best gained by discouraging any sort of critical analysis. Car salespeople (here in the US, where the internet lives) often have an interest in convincing customers to buy TODAY. No asking about the specs, no comparing the car to something else, no price shopping. YOU buy the car, NOW. Save all of that fussy “thinking” for the “buyer’s remorse” phase of the sales cycle.
    Conversely, yes, there is a such thing as “analysis paralysis”. I agree that the definition of insanity is “performing the same act repeatedly and expecting different results.” If blogging isn’t working for whatever the intended purpose was on the part of the author, change strategies. Otherwise it’s all whining.
    But let’s at least be honest that the mechanics of what is called “A List” popularity is not always pure as the driven snow, and yes, is self-perpetuating. (Or how about “incestuous” in the Shakespearian sense?) If nothing else, on this point Seth and I seem to agree. As to whether or not this explicitly is preventing Seth or anyone else from accomplishing their objectives, I leave that to the philosophers.

  17. Hey Ethan, thanks for the thoughtful comment.
    “But let’s at least be honest that the mechanics of what is called “A List” popularity is not always pure as the driven snow, and yes, is self-perpetuating.”
    Self-perpetuating? Disagree. Stop writing interesting content and see how long you stay at the top. Remember Liz Spiers? Choire Sicha? Who? Exactly.
    Hell, stop writing good content and see how you last in the ‘sphere, at any level.

  18. “Hell, stop writing good content and see how you last in the ‘sphere, at any level.”
    Theoretically, forever. It’s a big ‘sphere, I’m told.
    However, and thanks for providing a good segue point: What shall we say about content theft?
    I am probably crossing a line by bringing this up, and I defer to Seth to fill in the necessary blanks as he sees fit. I don’t recall the exact particulars, but Seth cranked out original research on the topic of (I believe) “censorware” that he published on his site. An “A List” site lifted the material (again, this may be inaccurate) without attribution. Seth never did get his “due”, and millions of readers were left with the impression that this “A-List” site did all of the heavy lifting. At root, and correct me if I’m wrong Seth, this is quite a bitter pill indeed, and once that goes quite beyond “information wants to be free”.
    Food for thought, and apologies to Seth for fronting him out.

  19. Hugh, the phrase was “EFFECTIVELY reply”. The word “EFFECTIVELY” is intended to convey the distinction between some *non-trivial*, objective, standard of success, and some trivial tautology.
    And it’s a near-tautology to talk about how popular people are widely-read, so if you want to be widely-read, be popular. The assertion under discussion is that the system is much more complex, so repeating the near-tautology is meaningless except again as posturing.
    Jerry, I don’t expect to have the preeminence of scatology and fart jokes. All activist, literary, professional, intellectual pursuits are in some sense niche interests, compared to the overall population. But even so, the exponential distribution problem applies within a niche, of a few people getting heard, and everyone else having to beg them to get meaningful distribution.
    Hugh – “self-reinforcing” is a better term. You’re also doing what I call the “Fame Is Fickle” argument. Sure, some stars fade, other rise – but that’s irrelevant if almost everyone will remain in obscurity.

  20. Kathy Sierra says:

    I SO agree with Hugh — people read what they feel is worth their time and effort. Who here does *not*? As to whether we believe that what others choose is “good” or “quality” or “worthy”, who are we to judge their choices? The notion that to offer something people *want* to read somehow makes one a sell-out/popularity whore is a huge problem.
    If we have something WE want people to read, we must give THEM a compelling reason to do so. Until we stop seeing “making the effort to offer something THEY value” as “marketing/selling-out”, we’ll be stuck with the same, tired argument.
    Wrapping the content WE want them to read within something THEY want to read seems like a benefit for everyone. Is it being “dishonest” or “inauthentic” to value someone’s time? I suppose, it could be… if we don’t really care about them. And that would be a huge problem– if we write only for what our readers will do for US, rather than the other way ’round, we’re screwed (and so are our readers). If we write only because we think we *deserve* to be read, rather than the other way ’round (that our readers *deserve* something they–and only they–consider worth it), nobody wins.
    Each of us has the choice to create what readers (not just US) will value, and we don’t need to beg an A-lister for distribution.
    If we want to attract readers with a brain, we should start by trusting that those readers can make their own decision about what is worth their time. Viewing them as A-lister sheep cannot possibly be a productive strategy.
    I no longer believe that “quality rises to the top”, but I think there’s plenty of evidence that putting the reader first can make a huge difference. But only–and it’s a BIG ONLY–if we let the *readers* decide what’s best for them. No amount of A-list linking will help if readers don’t find something worth their time, and virtually no A-list linking is necessary if they do.

  21. Ugh. Here we go again.
    Yes content matters. So does getting OFF your blog and making connections and friends in the community. Sad thing is, to many bloggers, that’s simply too much work. And it is work, but it’s some of the most rewarding time you’ll ever spend. For the most part, A-Listers don’t have to do that anymore, and have the community coming to them. Of course, not everyone lets Technorati decide who they should or should not read.
    But I do find the ‘write better stuff or shut-up’ rebuttle from A-Listers to be a bit misleading. Absolutely content matters, but so does longevity. Since we are on Gaping Void, go to Alexaholic and put in Gaping Void and you’ll see that according to Alexa, GP was a pretty dead blog for about 4 years, before it finally took off around the start of last year. Was that the point at which Hugh finally started writing good content, or was it at that point that the A-Listers and everyone else started NOTICING his content?
    Bottom line is that many Z-Listers think they need A-Lister links to grow, and many A-Listers think that linking to Z-Listers is a total waste of their time.
    Of course, both sides are wrong.

  22. A transparent — and liquid — market for the ad spaces on single-creator media solves the problem, as adbitrageurs will profit from identifying and helping to popularize undervalued blogs…

  23. @Mack (or anyone with an answer)
    At what point does a Z-Lister get any recognition? When does their content catch on? If they don’t “need” A-Listers, we’ll admit they need someone.
    Wouldn’t it be easier for someone to be a gatekeeper for an A-Lister then a Z-Lister?

  24. Oops, just for the record, about this:
    “I don’t recall the exact particulars, but Seth cranked out original research on the topic of (I believe) “censorware” that he published on his site. An “A List” site lifted the material (again, this may be inaccurate) without attribution. Seth never did get his “due”, and millions of readers were left with the impression that this “A-List” site did all of the heavy lifting. At root, and correct me if I’m wrong Seth, this is quite a bitter pill indeed, and once that goes quite beyond “information wants to be free”.”
    The specifics of that incident are more complex, and in a deep way, even more discouraging. IN NO WAY do I accuse the A-list site of plagiarism. What happened is that I had done original censorware research earlier, and published it, and even sent out press releases – and essentially been completely ignored. THEN I got personally attacked by discussions similar to this one, because since I was ignored, my work must have been trivial. When the A-list blog became interested in the topic, I sent them e-mail about the material I’d published, PLUS there was some backchannel, PLUS I’m on the first page of Google results. Then they did their post on the topic, attributing it to a tip from a different named reader. They didn’t plagiarize me. I simply was not heard, as I am a Z-lister. It’s still quite a bitter pill indeed. There’s too many who simply will not admit “Yes, there’s a gatekeeper system, where you can do original work, but the person who just happens to be noticed by the gatekeeper will get credited to millions of readers”.
    This ended up strengthening my decision not to do such original research, since I considered it a personal dispositive refutation of the exhortations about quality. Now, some people will always go for the cheap mean-spirited sneer, but I suppose I should just try to be better at accepting that no amount of evidence will be ever be sufficient to dissuade them.

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