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Why online gatekeepers like Apple come in handy

By Shira Ovide

Gatekeepers like powerful tech companies have a bad reputation for controlling what happens online. But they don’t completely deserve the heat.

One of the thrills of the digital age is that individuals no longer need permission from powerful institutions. Creators of a cat tuxedo can set up shop online and don’t need to persuade a big-box store to stock their product. People who witnessed an airplane’s emergency landing or lived through a war can share their experiences over social media rather than wait for news organizations to tell their tales.

People don’t have to win over record labels, book publishers or Hollywood bosses to entertain us. They can reach us directly.

I regularly point out in On Tech that this power of the individual over the gatekeeper is only half-true. Yes, anyone can write an app, make a new product, craft a song or share information, but the path to reaching people largely goes through Google, Apple, Amazon, Facebook, Spotify and other powerhouses. Old dictators of information, products and entertainment may have lost influence, but in their place rose new digital gatekeepers.

It’s a bummer, in a way, and it’s one reason that technologists are gravitating to “web3,” a broad term for an imagined future internet in which individuals have more control and ownership.

Today, though, I come in praise of gatekeepers. That doesn’t mean that web3 is a worthless idea or that we should bring back the old Hollywood system that decided which actors or writers could work and which were shunned.

But there is also real value when trusted experts decide. Perhaps one reason that gatekeepers keep reemerging is that they can be pretty darn handy.

Apple dictates what apps you can download on your iPhone and reviews every line of software code in them. Apple is an unapologetic app gatekeeper. And while I’ve written before that the drawbacks of this approach may now outweigh the benefits, we should acknowledge the good that comes from an institution’s choosing to weed out apps that it believes promote harmful behavior, are in poor taste, rip off good ideas or try to steal our money.

Likewise, it can be glorious to have a choice of thousands of barbecue grills on Amazon or elsewhere online. But sometimes it can be a relief for our local Home Depot to stock just three good ones to choose from.

Bonus: Home Depot probably isn’t going to sell you counterfeit or dangerous grills. And if it does, it may be legally liable. Amazon might not be, if the grills are sold by independent merchants that sell on Amazon like it’s a flea market.

I like being able to hear directly from politicians and corporate executives on Twitter and wading through a zillion points of view about a news event. Where else would I learn about Russian military truck tires directly from someone with firsthand experience?

But there is also value when journalists carefully vet information and tell us what’s important. (Feel free to disagree with this journalist about the value of journalism.)

Lucas Shaw, a Bloomberg News entertainment reporter, recently wrote about what he said the web3-related movements got wrong about empowering musicians or other entertainers to connect directly with fans without go-betweens like streaming services and record labels. “Most musicians, actors, writers, filmmakers and creative people prefer the support of an institution with expertise,” he wrote. “It makes their lives easier.”

A great record label or agent can help polish a budding musician or actor, and a savvy publisher might identify book groups to spread the word about a new title. Gatekeepers charge for their expertise, but they can add more than they take.

This isn’t universally true. Some gatekeepers are clueless or power-hungry, and some creative people don’t want all this intervention. But for others, the help, as opposed to doing it all themselves, can be a blessing.

There are things that absolutely stink about gatekeepers, whether they’re older ones like corporate news organizations and Walmart or younger ones like Apple and YouTube.

They make stupid decisions sometimes. They take away our choices and erode the autonomy and earnings of the people who make entertaining videos, books or cat tuxedos. Maybe web3 will end the power of the few to act as arbitrators for the many, or perhaps it will consolidate power as every tech movement has for decades.

I hope we don’t throw out what is useful about gatekeepers, though, even as we reconsider them.

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