What's Old Is New: The Gatekeepers Are Back, and Stronger Than Ever

By Trevor Gilbert , written on August 31, 2012

From The News Desk

In the early days of the Internet, its disruptive nature wasn’t a result of technical protocols or flashy GIFs. It was the promise that anyone could head West, set up shop, and succeed based upon their merits, that a startup out of Stanford could organize the world’s information, or that it was possible for a couple of guys to take out an entire industry. It took the ethos of Silicon Valley startups, where the craziest and most brilliant win, and opened it up to the entire world.

As the Internet grew, the gatekeepers of the analog world slowly became irrelevant. It used to be the companies like book publishers, game distributors, and music labels controlled commerce in their respective industries. But following the big bang of the Internet, when the public flooded servers everywhere, a meritocracy seemed to form. Companies like Amazon and Google appeared, which changed the commercial world from something built upon decades of gatekeepers and historical precedent, into something that was based upon meritocracy, hard work, and skill.

But as search engines and Web-based portals swung the world away from a dependence upon gatekeepers, the pendulum now seems to be swinging back. There are new gatekeepers in town, and they are even more powerful than those the Internet once killed off.

These new gatekeepers are the platform owners -- companies like Apple, Google, Twitter, Facebook, Amazon, and even Spotify, the companies that can ban apps or determine who is on the promoted apps boards, the companies that can be the lifeblood of startups, or the death knoll.

To elaborate on how this “gatekeeper” model works, consider mass-market consumer products -- children’s board games, for example. The gaming industry was controlled by a few major brands like Milton Bradley and Parkers Bros. If you were an enterprising game creator looking to make it big, you would turn to one of these powerhouses, who could take the game, buy the rights, and distribute the game along existing promotional channels around the world. Without these gatekeepers, widespread success was nearly impossible.

The thing about these deals though, is that they weren’t so much based upon the actual board games as they were upon the people striking the deals. The industry ran on a gatekeeper model, where knowing someone was more important than the quality of a game. Looking at the current app market, with success coming from being feature on the App Store and Play Store, it’s clear that history is repeating itself.

But being chosen by the people who control these lists, or the Android equivalents, is highly unlikely, nearing the impossible. For all of the hundreds of thousands of apps in various marketplaces, less than a couple dozen are featured every week. So how do developers and startups get onto these lists? By having direct relationships with the companies.

I spoke to one app developer -- who asked not to be named so as to not damage a relationship with Apple -- and he described the process of being featured is the App Store as extremely bizarre. According to this founder, Apple tries to make the process of being “featured” as being very merit-based. But more often than not, it all boils down to personal connections.

As an extension of this, the relationships that yield such career-making “features” are fragile. Companies -- particularly Apple -- tend to act like the typical jealous girlfriend, overreacting to even the faintest hint of a sleight. This same founder told me that when their company shared with Apple that the company would be launching an Android application in a few months, Apple said the app wouldn’t be featured on the App Store ever again.

The “Apple as jealous girlfriend” metaphor is never more clear than at official Keynote events. If we look at the companies that are invited to speak on stage, they are almost always iOS-exclusives, have close historical ties to the company, former Apple employees on staff, or are generally pro-Apple. It’s a classic case of personal relationships being the key to success.

The situation is the same at Twitter. There is a clear sense of a developing caste system, where major developers and Twitter executives are communicating with each other, while “lesser” developers are left in the dark. According to an executive at a company with very close historical ties to Twitter, who also declined to speak on the record, all of the ruckus over Twitter’s policy changes surrounding developers didn’t faze their company at all. Twitter had been upfront from the beginning, and there had been no issues or anxiety over the impending changes.

Contrast this with what I heard from the developer of a major Twitter client prior to the announced API changes. At the time, the developer expressed confusion over Twitter’s lack of communication. The company clearly knew what it was going to do, but it only really communicated to the companies that it had a personal relationship with. This disparity shows a clear “most favored nation” system within the community.

It’s the same at Facebook. Sure, anyone can develop for the Facebook platform, and maybe some random developer will have success. But if you know people in the company, the situation is very different. Look no further than Dalton Caldwell’s “Dear Mark Zuckerberg” letter from earlier this summer. Caldwell was able to meet directly with executives at Facebook in the time leading up to an app launch. This isn’t treatment just anyone can get.

There’s one major conclusion to be made from these observations. That the new gatekeepers, operating by the old rules of favoritism vs. merit-based judgment, give more access to companies in Silicon Valley than those elsewhere in the United States.

These new gatekeepers will fundamentally challenge if smaller “unknown” developers can succeed or not. Instead of success being based upon a meritocracy, success may end up being dependent upon networking skills and connections. That’s quite a departure from the Internet’s original promise of success based upon blood, sweat, tears, and talent.