Academic journal article Communication Research Trends

Gatekeeping Theory from Social Fields to Social Networks

Academic journal article Communication Research Trends

Gatekeeping Theory from Social Fields to Social Networks

Article excerpt

Gatekeeping theory refers to the control of information as it passes through a gate (Shoemaker & Vos, 2009). The gate is guarded by gatekeepers, who make decisions about what information to let through and what to keep out (Lewin, 1947b). In making these decisions, gatekeepers exercise power over those on the other side of the gate. The intellectual origins of gatekeeping can be traced to Kurt Lewin, a Berlin-born social scientist who applied the methods of individual psychology to the whole social world. Lewin approached gatekeeping as just one of many interrelated phenomena that together make up a social field. To understand gatekeeping, one had to understand the whole field. Lewin's student, David Manning White, was the first to apply the concept of gatekeeping to mass communication. White's (1950) analysis of the gatekeeping decisions of one newspaper editor, called Mr. Gates, focused on the subjective factors that influence gatekeeping decisions. Following White (1950), the field of communication has most often conceptualized gatekeeping as the selection of news, where a small number of news items pass a gate manned by journalists. In making their selections, gatekeepers construct social reality for the gated (Shoemaker, 1991).

The World Wide Web has presented new challenges to these traditional models of gatekeeping, where raw content passes uni-directionally through a gate manned by journalists before reaching the reading public. The ability of users to create and disseminate their own content has uprooted and inverted the roles of gatekeeper and gated. However, if the mass of information on the Web necessitates some form of gatekeeping, what does it look like? Brown (1979) and, more recently, Shoemaker and Vos (2009) and Shoemaker and Reese (2014), call for a return to Lewin. They argue that Lewin's field theory remains relevant for gatekeeping. Much early gatekeeping research followed White (1950) and left Lewin's field theory behind (Shoemaker & Vos, 2009). For Shoemaker and Vos (2009), gatekeeping must reconnect with its origins in field theory and add an audience channel to old models of gatekeeping. In several articles and chapters, Karine Barzilai-Nahon disagrees. For Barziali-Nahon (2009), adding new channels to old models does not adequately account for the dynamism of gatekeeping in new media, and the changed roles of gatekeeper and gated. Barzilai-Nahon proposes a new concept, the "gated," and a new theory, network gatekeeping, to model the dynamism of gatekeeping on new media.

In this review essay, I first describe the intellectual origins of gatekeeping theory in Lewin's field theory. I then trace the development of gatekeeping theory from early debates about its focus to modern questions about its applicability to new media.

I then outline the conceptual apparatus of network gatekeeping theory, and situate network gatekeeping theory within communication studies. Finally, I apply network gatekeeping in the context of Digg, Twitter, and Facebook, three social networks that demonstrate the capacity for not only selecting, but also repeating, channeling, and manipulating information.

1. Intellectual Origins of Gatekeeping Theory

A. Lewin and field theory

The father of gatekeeping theory is Kurt Lewin (Shoemaker & Vos, 2009). Born in Poland in 1890 and raised in Berlin, Lewin was a pioneer of applied psychology in the United States. From his early days in Berlin, Lewin developed a conceptual apparatus for studying human behavior and motives with methodological rigor. Lewin developed best practices for social scientists to understand the social world with the same precision that natural scientists understand the physical world (Cartwright, 1951). In Lewin's time, social science was torn between speculative theory and objective empiricism. Lewin called for a middle ground that makes generalizations about the social world from observations of human behavior. …

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