Network Gatekeeping Theory (NGT)

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  • Have you ever wondered how certain information gets amplified online while others disappear into the digital abyss? Network Gatekeeping Theory (NGT) offers a compelling lens to understand this phenomenon. Developed by Dr. Karin Barzilai-Nahon, NGT dives into the power dynamics that shape information control within complex networks, particularly online spaces.

Demystifying the Flow of Information: An Introduction to Network Gatekeeping Theory

At its core, NGT examines how information is selected, shaped, and disseminated through these networks. It moves beyond the traditional view of gatekeeping as a singular, centralized entity (think editors or news gatekeepers) and acknowledges the distributed nature of power in online environments.

Lewin (1947) introduced the concept of a gatekeeper, highlighting the role of individuals or groups who exert control over information. These gatekeepers act as filters, selecting information for publication, channeling it through specific channels, or even shaping it to fit a particular mold. Their influence is akin to a physical gate through which information must pass.

NGT: Redefining Gatekeeping for the Networked Age

Building upon Lewin's groundwork, Barzilai-Nahon (2008) proposed NGT, offering a fresh perspective on gatekeeping in the digital age. This theory transcends traditional, centralized models and embraces the complexities of information flow within networks. NGT draws upon various disciplines, including information systems, management, political science, and sociology, to provide a more nuanced understanding of gatekeeping in today's interconnected world.

The Nuances of Network Gatekeeping

Consistent with traditional gatekeeping, NGT acknowledges the diverse methods used to control information. These methods encompass a wide range of activities, including "selection, addition, withholding, display, channeling, shaping, manipulation, repetition, timing, localization, integration, disregard, and deletion of information" (Barzilai-Nahon, 2008, p. 1496).

However, NGT goes beyond these traditional methods. It delves into the power dynamics within networks, particularly online spaces often perceived as decentralized and egalitarian. NGT helps us analyze how information can become surprisingly centralized within these networks despite their distributed structure.

Understanding the Building Blocks of NGT

NGT introduces five key concepts that form the foundation for analyzing information control in networks:

  1. Gate: This is the entry or exit point within a network where information flow can be controlled. Think of it as a decision point where content can be passed through, redirected, or blocked.
  2. Gatekeeping: This refers to the process of exerting control over information as it travels through these gates. The methods employed by gatekeepers encompass a wide range, as mentioned earlier.
  3. Gatekeeping Mechanism: This consists in tools, technologies, or methods used to carry out gatekeeping. Algorithms, social media platform settings, and even online community moderation tools can all be considered gatekeeping mechanisms.
  4. Network Gatekeeper: Any entity (person, organization, or governing body) that has the power to influence information flow through a gatekeeping mechanism. Importantly, NGT acknowledges that gatekeepers can choose the extent to which they exercise this power.
  5. Gated: The entity or information subject to the gatekeeping process.

By understanding these concepts, we gain valuable insights into how information travels through online networks. NGT offers a powerful framework for analyzing the complex power dynamics that shape our digital experience.

Network Gatekeepers: Guardians of Information Flow

Network Gatekeeping Theory (NGT) expands the concept of gatekeeping beyond the sender-receiver model prevalent in traditional mass communication theories. NGT acknowledges the complex web of actors and processes that influence information flow within networks.

Unlike traditional gatekeepers who primarily act as filters for outgoing information (think editors or news media), network gatekeepers have a broader range of functions:

  1. Shielding the Network: They can prevent unwanted information from entering the network, protecting its integrity and user experience. This might involve filtering out spam, malware, or content deemed inappropriate for the specific network.
  2. Curating Internal Information Flow: Network gatekeepers can control the flow of information within the network itself. This could involve prioritizing certain types of content, promoting specific conversations, or even restricting access to sensitive information within specific sections of the network.
  3. Guarding the Network's Outputs: While less emphasized in NGT compared to traditional models, network gatekeepers can still influence what information leaves the network. This might involve moderating content shared externally or managing network security protocols to prevent unauthorized data leaks.

NGT vs. Traditional Gatekeeping: A Shift in Perspective

The table below highlights the key differences between NGT and traditional gatekeeping theories:

Feature Traditional Gatekeeping Network Gatekeeping Theory (NGT)
Model of Communication Sender-Receiver (one-directional) Networked (multi-directional)
Gatekeeper Role Filtering outgoing information Controlling information flow within and across networks
Gatekeepers Primarily media organizations Individuals, organizations, algorithms, online communities
Focus Content selection and editing Information control through various mechanisms

Traditional gatekeeping theories were limited by the sender-receiver model, where information flowed in one direction from a gatekeeper to a passive audience. NGT acknowledges the complexities of networked communication. Information can flow in multiple directions, and gatekeepers can be diverse entities, from individuals to algorithms. This broader perspective is crucial for understanding how information is controlled and disseminated in the digital age.

NGT: Rethinking Information Flow in a Networked World

Traditional gatekeeping theories, based on a sender-receiver model, view information flow as a one-way street – from the source (gatekeeper) to the destination (gated audience). However, Network Gatekeeping Theory (NGT) challenges this simplistic view.

In network environments, the roles become more fluid. The gated audience can also be a source of information, creating and sharing content independently. Additionally, gatekeepers can become destinations, receiving information generated by the network. This two-way flow of information creates a more dynamic and complex information ecosystem.

Breaking Free from Gatekeeper Control: The Power of User-Generated Content

Traditional gatekeeping assumes only gatekeepers hold the power to create information. NGT acknowledges the rise of user-generated content (UGC). The gated audience can now bypass gatekeepers and produce information independently, fostering a more pluralistic online space.

Limited Reach vs. Amplification: The Challenge of Visibility

While UGC empowers the audience, the reach of independent information often pales in comparison to content disseminated by established gatekeepers who control significant audience attention.

NGT highlights the potential for the gated audience to circumvent traditional gatekeeping mechanisms. The emergence of alternative platforms like independent websites allows individuals to bypass gatekeepers and express themselves freely. However, circumventing gatekeepers isn't always straightforward. Gatekeepers may employ multiple control mechanisms, making it difficult to completely bypass their influence.

In a nutshell, NGT offers a more nuanced understanding of information flow in the digital age. It acknowledges the power of user-generated content, the two-way flow of information, and the challenges and opportunities associated with circumventing traditional gatekeepers.

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  • References
    • Construction Communication, by Stephen Emmitt, Christopher A. Gorse
      Social Meanings of News: A Text-Reader, by Daniel A. Berkowitz
    • Theories of Information Behavior, by Karen E. Fisher, Sanda Erdelez, Lynne McKechnie

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