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Understanding the gatekeepers (updated)

The gatekeepers

Trailing not far behind the introduction of a successful new communications technology are the human and technological gatekeepers. Human gatekeepers include receptionists, executive assistants, recruiters, bureaucrats, budget managers, script readers—anyone who has the power to slow, stop, or accelerate access to someone or something. These gatekeepers are used to taking messages that they’ll never actually relay, used to deciding whether inquiries are worth the attention of the people they work for, and, above all else, used to saying “no” and “not interested.” Their ultimate charter as gatekeepers is to keep the people who are paid to focus on important things from having to make hundreds of tiny decisions every day that threaten to derail productivity. It’s easy to see this work from a cynic’s perspective. After all, these are people who are paid to stop others from getting through. But the reality is more nuanced. Great work requires sustained concentration and the ability to devote high-level resources to the projects and tasks that merit this attention. Everything else can be more efficiently dealt with by subordinates or no one at all. Making those calls is a necessary role, and probably thankless.

While it still plays a big part in society and business, human gatekeeping needs to be supplemented or replaced by technological gatekeeping in order for organizations to scale. Some technological gatekeeping is put in place to hide or remove public information. The CEO’s direct line can’t be listed on the company website, and his or her e-mail address shouldn’t be something easily guessed, like firstname.lastname@companyname.com.

[Not in the book: When I interviewed Clay Shirky, he told me about one of Seth Godin's early books, E-Mail Addresses of The Rich and Famous, published in 1994. Godin's guide, said Shirky, was an early technological side door of the digital era. The book must have been extremely useful to early adopters, but practically obsolete to those that waited just a little too long. Reviewing the book, Businessweek helpfully explained that "listing an Internet address such as 'jayvee@well.sf.ca.us' on your business card has become de rigueur in many computer-related industries."]

The Radicati Group finds that while the average number of business e-mails received per day is tracking upward, the average number of spam e-mails received is plateauing, thanks in part to automated filtering. This gatekeeping comes at a significant cost, however, as the same report found that medium-size to large companies are each spending millions fighting spam.

Social media is giving a voice to some of the smallest populations on the planet, most of which have few dedicated media providers printing or broadcasting in their native languages or covering topics of direct interest to them. IndigenousTweets.com indexes data about tweets and Twitter users in nearly 150 “indigenous and minority languages” from around the world. The site’s profile for the Asturian language, a native language for some in the Asturias region of Spain, lists 738 users and 191,539 individual tweets. These Twitter users hail from some of the most marginalized and disenfranchised groups in the world, and yet they have found a way to connect and engage in the new media landscape, the most remarkable feature of which is the absence of barriers. In the words of Kevin Scannel, the professor who leads the effort:

[Social media has] allowed sometimes-scattered communities to connect and use their languages online in a natural way. Social media have also been important in engaging young people, who are the most important demographic in language revitalization efforts. Together we’re breaking down the idea that only global languages like English and French have a place online!

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© 2016 Ian Greenleigh