Online Deciders Like Apple Have A Point

Powerful tech companies like Gatekeepers have a bad reputation for controlling what happens online. But they don’t totally 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 witness an airplane’s emergency landing or living 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 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 is mostly going through Google, Apple, Amazon, Facebook, Spotify and other powerhouses. Old dictators’ 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 of the reasons that technologists are gravitating to “web3,” a broader term for an imagined future in the 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. Probably one reason that gatekeepers keep re-emerging 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 the drawbacks of this approach may now outweigh the benefits, we should acknowledge the good that comes from choosing an institution’s apps that it believes are promoting 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 is probably not going to sell you counterfeit or dangerous grills. And if it does, it might be legally liable. Amazon might not, if the grills are sold by independent merchants that sell on Amazon like it is 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 is 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 about the Web3-related movements 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 spread the word about specific book groups to a new title. Gatekeepers charge for their expertise, but they can add more than they take.

This is not 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 arbiters for many, or maybe 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.

  • Elon Musk is making some Twitter friends: A number of companies, including investment funds and wealthy individuals, including Oracle’s founder, Larry Ellison, and the cryptocurrency exchange Binance, committed about $ 7 billion to Elon Musk’s purchase of Twitter, my colleague Lauren Hirsch reported. They’ll become part-owners of Twitter, and cash will reduce the size of a loan that Musk needs to help pay for the $ 44 billion acquisition.

    More on Musk: My colleagues John Eligon and Lynsey Chutel report on the backdrop of Musk’s childhood in apartheid-era South Africa.

  • When cybercriminals disrupt school: Bloomberg News tallies the costs to schools of transnational attacks, which involve criminals’ locking institutional computer systems and data until they are paid. Lincoln College in Illinois blamed for a pandemic attack on a transomware attack and falling enrollment for its decision to close next week.

  • The YouTube videos are perfectly tuned to your kiddos: My colleague David Segal writes about the company behind “CoComelon” and other wildly popular children’s online entertainment and data-driven methods – including a tool called The Distractatron – that executives use to analyze what keeps young children engaged.

In 1984, Keanu Reeves hosted a Canadian TV news report about a teddy-bear convention. It was awesome. (Yes, it’s real. The CBC dug this out of its archives in 2020.) Thanks to my colleague Erin McCann for sharing the video.

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