Network Gatekeeping Theory (NGT)

The concept of a gatekeeper was first introduced by Lewin (1947) and defined as an individual or group that exercises control over information, for example, by selecting the information to publish, channeling information through a channel, rejecting information or shaping information into a suitable form.

Gatekeepers are important since they act as a physical gate through which information has to pass.

Consistent with Lewin’s initial research, Barzilai-Nahon (2008) proposed a new concept of gatekeeping and named it Netwok Gatekeeping Theory (NGT).

The Network Gatekeeping Theory (NGT) takes on a new way of looking at gatekeeping. It comprises multidisciplinary aspects including information systems, management, political science, and sociology, offers new definitions of gatekeeping and gatekeepers by refining traditional concepts and adapting it into a networked theory of gatekeeping.

Consistent with the traditional concept of gatekeeping, Network gatekeeping consists in a range of information control, including “selection, addition, withholding, display, channeling, shaping, manipulation, repetition, timing, localization, integration, disregard, and deletion of information” (Barzilai-Nahon, 2008, p. 1496).

Based on an examination of power relations on the Internet and a space of information, NGT conceptualizes the distribution of information and processes of information control. It enables one to analyze centralization in networks, which have a decentralized design, and are commonly viewed as egalitarian spaces. NGT has many ramifications for how we comprehend information dissemination and user behavior on the Internet.

NGT comprises five basic concepts:

Gate

The entrance to, or the exit from, a network or its sections.

Gatekeeping

The process of controlling information as it moves through a gate. Activities include selection, addition, withholding, display, channeling, shaping, manipulation, repetition, timing, localization, integration, and disregard and deletion of information.

Gatekeeping Mechanism

Tool, technology or methodology used to carry out the process of gatekeeping.

Network Gatekeeper

An entity (person, organization, or governing body) that has the discretion to exercise gatekeeping through a gatekeeping mechanism in networks and can choose the extent to which to exercise it.

Gated

An entity that is subject to a gatekeeping process.

From: Theories of Information Behavior, by Karen E. Fisher, Sanda Erdelez, Lynne McKechnie.

Functions of Network Gatekeepers

Gatekeepers exercising control over network protocols have three main functions:

  • To prevent the entrance of undesired information from the outside.
  • To prevent the exit of undesired information to the outside.
  • To control information inside the network.

From: Theories of Information Behavior, by Karen E. Fisher, Sanda Erdelez, Lynne McKechnie.

Because the traditional concept of gatekeeping was developed mainly as a part of mass communication discourse, the players were conceived as acting in sender-receiver roles.

The gatekeeper was conceived as a mass media agent (such as a newspaper, television, or radio station) playing the role of the sender, with the gated, (such as a newspaper reader, television viewer, or radio listener) playing the role of the receiver. The gatekeeper was responsible for editing, producing, and distributing information to be received by the gated.

The table below summarizes the exclusiveness of NGT compared to traditional gatekeeping theories.

Traditional gatekeeping vs. network gatekeeping.
VariablesTraditional
Gatekeeping
Network Gatekeeping Theory (NGT)

Gatekeeping process

Mainly a selection process

Information control that includes activities such as selection, addiction, withholding, display, channeling, shaping, manipulation, repetition, timing, localization, integration, disregard, and deletion

Focus on gatekeepers

The individual gatekeeper

Focus on two dimensions: authority and functional. Different levels in each dimension (e.g., governments, regulators, search providers, network service providers, organizations, individuals)

Focus on gatekeeping mechanism

Editorial mechanisms

Nine categories are part of gatekeeping mechanisms (e.g., censorship, channeling, infrastructure mechanisms), and one meta-category, the regulation mechanism

Relationship

Relations of sender-receiver

Frequent exchange interaction between gated and gatekeeper

Information

Notion of source-destination

No necessary association between source-destination and gatekeeper-gated

Only gatekeepers produce and create information freely

The gated also create and produce infomation

Alternatives

No alternatives to gatekeeping

Possible circumvention of gatekeepers and gatekeeping mechanisms

Power

Gatekeeper has power, the gated has none

The bargaining power of the gated is on the rise. On the other hand, gatekeepers have more mechanisms to control information

Number of gatekeepers

One to a few

A few to many

Types of gatekeepers

One to a few

A few to many

From: Theories of Information Behavior, by Karen E. Fisher, Sanda Erdelez, Lynne McKechnie.

Based on the notion of sender-receiver, traditional literature treats information that passes from sender to receiver as having a source-to-destination direction. The source is presumed to be the originator of the information (the gatekeeper) and the information (the gated) is presumed to be the destination.

However, in the context of networks, information can also be produced by the gated, and the gated can serve as a source; likewise, the gatekeeper can also serve as a destination point. Furthermore, according to the traditional literature, only gatekeepers create and produce information; the gated audience is not considered capable of producing and creating information freely.

The gated only rarely receive the right to create information, in most cases under the control and authorization of the gatekeeper. For example, a newspaper reader asked to react to an article may do so only by means of a column reserved for reader responses, and one of the editors must approve it for publication. NGT argues that in networks, the relationship between gatekeepers and gated is more complex.

Gatekeepers have greater advantage to create and produce greater volumes of information than the gated because of their vast resources. Nevertheless, the gated can create and produce information independently as well, without having to pass through a content gatekeeper. But when the gated create information independently, its significance is rather low because of the limited exposure it receives compared to information disseminated by the gatekeepers that control most of the audience’s attention.

The existence of alternative public platforms to gatekeepers is significant in itself because it contributes to a more pluralized cyberspace. Another way of analyzing gated power in networks is by focusing on the production of information rather than on the creation of information. The gated can produce information in networks that was created by gatekeepers, an ability that enhances the power of the gated.

A major deterministic claim put forth by the traditional concept of gatekeeping is that the gated’s ability to circumvent the gatekeeping process is minimal. The only alternative is to circumvent a specific gatekeeper by moving to another within the same community, which may well be subject to the same biases and procedures. For example, a reader can switch from one newspaper to another, but the process of gatekeeping through the editorial process continues.

NGT shows that in networks the gated can circumvent gatekeeping. For example, through publishing an independent Web site, the gated can respond to events that she cannot respond to through traditional channels of the media and without the intervention of gatekeeping. However, circumvention is not always possible even in networks since often gatekeepers use more than one mechanism, depending on context, which makes the circumvention more difficult.

Fig. 1.1 Network gatekeeping model
Figure: Network Gatekeeping Model
During any network interaction, the roles of sender and receiver are repeatedly exchanged, with the gatekeeper and the gated playing both roles.

In traditional literature, relationships between gatekeepers and their audience are mainly uni-directional. This strengthens the gatekeepers’ power and their control over their audience. Because of the presumed sender-receiver roles of gatekeeper (sender) and the gated (receiver), the gated are not perceived as possessing any significant power.

In a networked environment the situation is significantly more complicated. The gated may have alternatives and the power to create and produce information. Their bargaining position and power are enhanced relative to traditional roles. Consequently, gatekeepers must avoid conditions that encourage the gated to overcome gates that have been posted in networks. On the other hand, gatekeepers have more mechanisms of information control, which they can exercise over the gated. This is indicated in the Figure, above.

Traditional gatekeeping researchers usually use ethnographic case study methodologies. In analyzing gatekeeping in a networked context, this might not be sufficient. Barzilai-Nahon (2004) suggests a combination of qualitative and quantitative methodology, using a content analysis of the information combined with quantitative methods, to analyze models as part of the general NGT. NGT allows one to understand information control and to predict patterns of user behavior in the networked environment. For example, it was found that senior members of virtual communities are less likely to post messages that harm the community compared to new members (Barzilai-Nahon, 2004).

In summary, NGT enables one to conceptualize and analyze information flow over the Internet, both technically and socially. NGT emphasizes power relationships among relevant actors through information flow, and identifies potential bottlenecks and obstacles. Finally, analyzing the phenomenon of information flow through NGT also helps practitioners and scholars evaluate aspects of virtual communities’ cultures through an awareness of the forces that control and provide information to members of online communities.