Why We Need Gatekeepers

At this point in our history, sharing something that has not been shared before, or in a new way, is the surest way to increase its value. — Kevin Kelly

The promise of the Internet has always been that “the gatekeepers” are no more. That anyone can create and share their art, without having to first be chosen.

Hooray!

Over the last 20 years, it’s become cheaper and easier to access both the creative tools you need as well as a global distribution network to share your work. The only issue is that when the means of production and distribution are essentially free, anyone can take advantage of them. Anyone can fill the Internet with their own work, regardless of quality, making it nearly impossible for any one artist to be discovered or paid for their creativity, no matter how deserving.

As I noted last week, so much new content is created in a day that it would take over a year just to preview it.

Supply of new media is through the roof while the demand for such work is constrained by the collective amount of time we have to consume it (a 24 hours/day max, but realistically, much less). If you understand basic economics, you know that if supply increases and demand holds steady, price trends to zero — which means we stop valuing creative work.

What Could Be Better Than Free?

In his book, The Inevitable (and on his blog), Kevin Kelly, the Founder of Wired Magazine, argues that the Internet is a giant copy machine. It takes creative work, duplicates it, disseminates it, increases supply, and thus makes everything free. We are powerless to stop it.

For the consumer, free is great. Anything can be had without any upfront investment. For the producer, free is terrible. When there’s no financial incentive, why create high-quality work?

And while we may not be able to overcome technology’s bent towards free, in this new era, Kelly thinks we can overcome the desire for it. He writes about eight “generative” qualities — qualities that technology cannot easily duplicate, making art better than free, thus rebalancing the incentive structure.

Seven have to do with individual works:

  • Immediacy — getting the product now, rather than waiting for the free version to surface later (e.g. paying more for a hardcover book rather than waiting for the cheaper paperback).
  • Personalization — getting something specifically created to your exact specifications (e.g. personalized medicine).
  • Interpretation — getting something for free, but paying someone to teach you how to use the product or improve proficiency (e.g. corporate consulting).
  • Authenticity — getting a product you’re sure is real, rather than a knockoff or fraud (e.g. buying an album on iTunes rather than acquiring it somewhere where it could have been altered).
  • Accessibility — getting access to a product or service without having to own or store it (e.g. Spotify, Uber).
  • Embodiment — getting a physical version of something you could get for free (e.g. buying a physical book).
  • Patronage — getting soemthing for free but paying for it anyway because you want to support the creator (e.g. subscribing to a Patreon).

The final generative quality, and arguably the most important, has nothing to do with a work itself. Instead, it deals with the aggregate of all creative work: findability.

How Gatekeepers Can Be a Force for Good

In a world where so much is created every day, it may be worth paying someone with an audience to find and share your work or, on the other side, it may be worth paying an expert to help you find the best work created each day. This process, of finding and sharing the best work (or work centered around a particular topic, or work created by a certain group) is called curation. And extant a relationship with the artist, we need curation — we need experts to point us toward the talent.

Although we often speak of gatekeepers in the negative, as hampering our ability to share our work, they do serve a positive function.

Much in the same way a museum curator chooses a group of paintings to hang in a museum (rather than create new paintings), publishers and labels (the old “gatekeepers”) have served a similar function in the consumer arts space. We used to rely on Columbia Records and Warner Brothers to fund and cultivate artists who would bring us high-quality work, and in return, pay them for their efforts. But as these old entities wither, we need new gatekeepers to help us find the good stuff on the Wild West that is the Internet. Most of us are busy, we cannot spend (or do not want to spend) as much time as a professional gatekeeper finding, cultivating, and sharing new works. As hard as it is to make something new, it’s equally hard to separate wheat from chaff.

Don’t Create, Curate

Every single day, hundreds if not thousands start new blogs, podcasts, and YouTube channels. Having written a blog for two and a half years, I can assure you, it’s a lot of work to post once, much less on a consistent basis. And the saddest part is, on average, new creative work is only going to get a few views.

Why go through the pain? Why continue to create when supply is so high and the value placed on the work is so low?

In the coming years, I would guess that a new artist won’t be writing blog posts or creating YouTube videos — she will be someone with a refined palate and good taste, helping the average consumer make sense of this new, overwhelming media landscape. The new artist will be a gatekeeper.

So if you’re looking to start something, don’t go through the pain of creating — we have enough “new” already. Instead, start curating. Become a gatekeeper. Piece the best of the Internet together, add context, and help consumers find creative works they’ll love — not just more writing advice (like this article), but true creative work that deserves to be rewarded.

PS: In the spirit of curation, if you want to learn more about this topic, read Colin Wright’s short book Curation is Creation.


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