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Gatekeeping and why it matters

Gatekeeping in online communities is crucial to the formation of stable identities that go beyond the basic role of a passive consumer of interests.

The word gatekeeper in its most abstract sense stands for someone who chooses which person is granted access to a certain entity, whether it be a social status or interest group. Its most common usage describes a person who excludes others from a certain activity or “scene” centered around a common interest, like a genre of music. Whenever gatekeeping is referenced in popular discourse, it is usually done so negatively with the intention of portraying whatever “community” is being gatekept as opposed to the very concept of exclusivity. The urge to open up these “communities” betrays the underlying nature of any social groups that are formed through a shared interest: there is a constant conflict to both preserve the identity of the subject and expand the community by any means necessary.

The communities created around interests in the 21st century all center around the internet, which has become the main medium of contact for the vast majority of the world. Such communities have no identifying cultural quirks like languages, since they all exist in the standard monoculture of the American sphere of influence. This is due to English being their lingua franca as well as most internet users being North American or European because of differences in global internet accessibility. This leads to both an implicit fluidity of membership (anyone can go anywhere and understand what is going on in mere minutes) and an all-encompassing drive to somehow distinguish communities within the suffocating bounds of the monoculture they inhabit. Interestingly enough, there has been a significant amount of success in efforts of differentiation undergone by many online cultures. The main way this happens is through the creation of disparate strings of memes (usually esoteric references to their interest) that allow for individuals within communities to tell who has and has not been a part of their specific interest groups for long enough. This of course leads to an air of general snobbery within communities not unlike that of ultra-rich art collectors, with none of the money to back it up. And, like art collecting, many such communities run the risk of becoming online hugboxes where members applaud each other for their own superiority and good taste. Such attitudes are generally distasteful and off-putting to those who want to “get into” any of the internet communities that have come to surround any activity or cultural product. Thus, a new sentiment, spread in the form of cross-cultural memes, has been born: that of the anti-gatekeeping sentiment. 

This sentiment squarely denies that anyone has the right (or power) to prevent people from becoming interested in anything. Usually this is expressed in the form of chastising those that draw a divide between “new” or “old” fans, deriding any attempt at differing newcomers from veterans by metrics like experience or commitment. Curiously, this anti-gatekeeping mentality seems to ignore the purpose of gatekeeping as it is only reacting to a specific symptom of the need for communities to differentiate themselves. By removing the line between “real fans” and the newly inducted, people who promote anti-gatekeeping are also removing the line between the obsessed “fan” and the passing consumer. This of course is not to the fault of the anti-gatekeeping crowd themselves: there is truth in the notion that these communities were founded on shaky logic in the first place, often based on consumer products that have no meaning other than the general drive to expand into as many potential markets as possible. However, for those that do want to create a sense of community within these interest groups, the moralizing tone of anti-gatekeepers is more than enough to prove a threat to the general project of creating a solid, differentiable identity. Now that being against gatekeeping is the dominant position, it is important to recognize that anti-gatekeeping is akin to gentrification, in which old cultures are driven out by new, contextless transplants from the basic monoculture that all communities differentiate themselves from. The end result is the destruction of difference altogether. Once we look at gatekeeping from this point of view, the benefits of it seem to be much more important than before. While there is definitely such a thing as “too exclusive,” to be squarely against any form of resistance to what amounts to digital gentrification is to ignore the fundamental question of what it means to have community in the digital age. Pockets of real resistance to cultural domination must be preserved and built upon, even if just for the sake of remembering what camaraderie feels like. 
By Jason Wu, Opinion editor
Editorial cartoon by Remy Wong