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Artificial Intelligence 28 February 2018

Information Gatekeeping: Not a Laughing Matter

Grant Gross
By Grant GrossGuest AuthorTechnology Reporter

There’s a joke that goes something like this: How do you make a little money in the online news business?

The punchline: Start with a huge pile of money, and work your way down from there.

It seems the same joke would work for the online comedy business, judging by the layoff news coming out of Funny or Die in January. Recently, published an interesting Q&A with comedy veteran Matt Klinman, and he talked about the woes of online comedy outlets.

Klinman focused his ire on Facebook and its role as an information gatekeeper, in which the site determines what comedy clips to show each of its users. But much of his criticism could have just as easily been targeted at a handful of other online gatekeepers that point Internet users to a huge percentage of the original content that’s out there.

As Klinman says about Facebook, these services have created their own “centrally designed Internet” in which they serve as “our editor and our boss. They hide behind algorithms that they change constantly.”

As a thrice-laid-off online journalist, I can sympathize. I’m pretty sure I can’t blame any of the current gatekeepers for my 2002 layoff or a near miss in 2000, when I left a job just weeks before a round of forced departures. Heck, some of them weren’t even around back then.

Still, a contributing factor in my 2015 and 2017 layoffs appeared to be the company’s inability to compete in an Internet landscape dominated by a few gatekeepers. I’m exhibit No. 238,092 showing the online news business model isn’t working these days.

When Klinman says content algorithms often favor clickbait and “things that appeal to the lowest common denominator,” those words resonate with me, even though it may sound like small gatekeeper Funny or Die complaining about a larger gatekeeper.

With perhaps a bit of hyperbole – mixed with a larger truth – Klinman added: “I would gladly give money to anyone who could tell me of any digital publisher that is doing well other than Facebook.”

But Facebook is certainly not the only Internet giant trying to hang onto your eyeballs as long as it can. Google has become the Internet’s default search and recommendation engine, and Amazon has become the place where you can buy just about anything.

Twitter, Reddit, and LinkedIn have also turned into gatekeepers for certain information.

At the heart of these criticisms is the rise of this small group of gatekeepers controlling access to information. While Internet users are still free to seek information from other sources, a small group of companies increasingly serves as the Internet’s entry point.

The existence of information gatekeepers isn’t new, of course. Before the mass adoption of the Internet, back in the dark ages of my early journalism career, the gatekeepers were the owners of newspapers, TV stations, and book publishing houses.

The Internet promised to change that arrangement by giving everyone the tools to publish. There were early attempts to create new gatekeepers – America Online and Yahoo’s Web Guide are two examples – but those efforts ultimately failed.

Instead, a Wild West of information sharing flourished online for several years. Many executives in the traditional news industry failed to embrace the Internet early, putting them at a huge disadvantage to upstarts like Google, Craigslist, and Facebook.

But the promise of an Internet with no central gatekeepers – or perhaps, instead, dozens of competing gatekeepers – didn’t last. Today, we have news organizations – and apparently comedy sites – embracing the dark art of gaming gatekeeper algorithms in an attempt to get in front of the largest possible audience.

But guessing an ever-changing algorithm’s preferences is not a sustainable business model. It’s not a sustainable strategy for creating high-quality online content.

Klinman suggests a couple of ways to fix this problem. He recommends web users adopt a new attitude based on the eating local and shopping local movements. Support your favorite comedy or news site.

And if large gatekeepers are making money by delivering content created by someone else, perhaps they should pay for it, like cable TV providers are required to pay for programming.

A conversation about ways to change this dynamic has been happening in some circles for a while now, but it’s past time for a wider debate about the future of Internet content creation.

Read the 2017 Global Internet Report: Paths to Our Digital Future, which explores the changing media landscape and how Artificial Intelligence might impact the future of the Internet.

Disclaimer: Viewpoints expressed in this post are those of the author and may or may not reflect official Internet Society positions.

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