the internet

The Real Meaning of Gatekeeping

It’s always been about the most powerful — it’s who has power and what they do with it that has changed.

Photo-Illustration: the Cut; Photos Getty Images
Photo-Illustration: the Cut; Photos Getty Images
Photo-Illustration: the Cut; Photos Getty Images

What are you gatekeeping? Shania Twain was accused of gatekeeping Harry Styles’s phone number. High Times denounced “stoner gatekeeping,” and racing fans pledged not to gatekeep Formula 1. On TikTok, if you gatekeep where you bought that vintage skirt or which drugstore moisturizer you use or or what’s the best martini in the city or how you’re making money from selling feet pics, you’ll be chastised.

Gatekeeping used to refer to people with their hands on the levers of institutional power. Said keepers were the media execs and political leaders who decide which voices are heard, what issues deserve attention, and where money flows. The term has undergone a rapid expansion since it found new prominence as the middle of the 2021 neoliberal-feminist cocktail “gaslight, gatekeep, girlboss.” Now gatekeepingVogue’s 2022 “word of the year” — has come to refer to anyone holding back any information, even if that info is of dubious or microniche value. And yet for all the discourse about girlbossing (she’s dead!) and gaslighting (you know it when you feel it!), there has been very little reckoning with gatekeeping even though it has so far proved to have the most staying power of the three. We’re more than halfway through 2023 and TikTok is still peppered with captions like “should i gatekeep this?” and the New York Times is using the word to describe the behavior of nü-metal fans.

Maybe it’s because I’m a rapidly aging millennial, but I still think a little gatekeeping can be a good thing depending on the context. The implicit demand to reveal the thought process behind every decision and the provenance of every purchase feels like socially enforced oversharing. The rise of “Don’t gatekeep” has reframed keeping things to yourself as a selfish act. But not everything is for everyone! And sometimes the act of sharing does more harm than good. I’m thinking of how Anthony Bourdain felt conflicted about sending droves of tourists to mom-and-pop restaurants. I’m thinking of gentrification and what happens when certain neighborhoods are positioned as hidden gems. And I’m thinking of what Lizzo said about twerking: “I’m not trying to gatekeep — but I’m definitely trying to let you know who built the damn gate.”

The word is “really doing a lot right now,” says Kelly Elizabeth Wright, a lexicographer with the American Dialect Society. Its prominence encapsulates this moment in social media. In the age of supposed “de-influencing,” starting a post with “I want to gatekeep this, but …” has become the perfect way to, well, influence. It signals both that you’re in the know and that you are a person of the people who wants to magnanimously share that knowledge.

Telling everyone you’re not gatekeeping is a quick and easy way to signal authenticity and transparency — two traits that are at a premium now. This is, of course, the premise that all influencer culture is built on: aspirational meets accessible. But it has a useful twist as the “influencer” label is increasingly getting replaced by “creator.” Influencers post with the crass motivation of selling things to you, while creators share what they know about living life right, all while pretending they don’t need to cash in. “Gen Z does not want to watch advertisements of me recommending products to them,” writer Leigh Stein said on TikTok this past spring. “Gen Z wants to come on TikTok and be entertained, be inspired, or learn something.” To peek beyond the gates.

To have a following on the internet today is to exist in what Cornell communications professor Brooke Erin Duffy calls “the authenticity bind,” a tightrope “between being too real and not real enough.” Walking it means anticipating criticism at every turn. For example, “if we saw only these recommendations for very overpriced products, that is going to defy our trust,” Duffy says. “It has the potential for critique, hate, harassment.” It doesn’t take long before seeing your favorite creator in head-to-toe Gucci (with or without the spon disclaimer) has an alienating effect. Social-media stars: They’re not just like us. But recommending something cheap or free is a way to wriggle out of the bind, Duffy notes, and bring in some relatability. The influencer in this season’s Gucci who also carries the Uniqlo nylon mini–shoulder bag she got for 20 bucks? She’s savvy! Her followers can trust her taste level because it’s not based exclusively on personal wealth or sponsorship deals. And as a bonus, she has cleverly positioned herself as an insider with the politics of someone who cares about outsiders. I’m in the know, and I’m going to let you in, too.

But gatekeeping can also serve as a protective measure depending on who’s doing it. “Do gatekeep” has become a common sentiment among creators of color — almost a rallying cry after watching memes and aesthetics and language get appropriated by the wider, white-dominated culture. For example, when white creators have used slang they learned from watching content posted by creators of color, some Black TikTokers have responded by encouraging one another not to correct the white creators’ misuse of AAVE. “You could be making a piece of content that is for other Black people or for your community,” Wright says, “but then it’s public or it gets algorithmically exposed. There is less control in the way social media is surfaced and served to people.” Protective gatekeeping is a way to take a bit of that power back.

So depending on who’s doing it, gatekeeping is either a selfish act … or a way of preserving your community and culture. Not gatekeeping is simultaneously a way to highlight cheaper and more sustainable methods of consumption … and classic influencer marketing by a new name. There are a few reasons for gatekeeping’s rapidly expanding and often contradictory uses. One is that culture is more diffuse than ever. The old fixed definition of gatekeepers as people with institutional power just doesn’t resonate in an era when algorithms cater to our individual tastes and any user-generated piece of content can become a viral sensation. We are all potential gatekeepers now. So without a powerful person at whom you can point a finger — like, say, record executives in the ’70s or MTV in the ’90s — gatekeeping becomes a possible charge against each and every one of us. Another reason is the pervasive fatalism about institutions. How satisfying is it to rehash the Supreme Court’s comically flawed nomination process when individual citizens have so little recourse to change it? It’s far more gratifying to use the gatekeeping charge against your peers, who might be paying attention to your demands for accountability and therefore actually do something about it.

But none of those very real reasons compares to the bigger, real-er reason “Don’t gatekeep” is here to stay: ye olde capitalism. It remains the perfect way to monetize your cachet and expertise in an era when we’ve collectively grown skeptical of both influencers and institutions.

This is exactly why beauty reporter Lindy Segal named her newsletter Gatekeeping: It’s full of product recommendations and therefore not gatekeeping. Invoking the term gave the project an air of exclusivity. “It felt insider, like you were signing up for something that was different than just any other interview newsletter,” she says. It’s also, she notes, rooted in a timeless impulse: “I think people just like to be authorities on things.”

Segal publishes Gatekeeping on Substack — where she can eventually convert her readers to paying subscribers — rather than on Instagram or TikTok. Creators are starting to wise up to the fact that the social-media platforms they use hold all the power, and they’re trying to figure out ways to take more control of their income. “I do think we’re going to see creators using gatekeeping as a tiered subscriber incentive,” says journalist Casey Lewis, who writes After School, a daily newsletter about youth trends. Lewis is beginning to see influencers tease things on Instagram Stories but reserve the brand-name reveal for paying subscribers. “I feel like that is a pretty clever way to use gatekeeping to actually make money as a creator,” Lewis says.

And so we’ve arrived at a full-circle moment. New regulations in the European Union classify major tech platforms with more than 45 million users as “gatekeepers,” subjecting them to certain rules. Meanwhile, the creators on those platforms are starting to use their savvy and cachet to siphon off some of that power by asking their followers to pay them directly — effectively using gatekeeping to their advantage in what could be the beginning of a broader pro-gatekeeping movement.

One thing is for certain: Its meaning is going to continue to shift. Segal has been sending her Gatekeeping newsletter for only a few months, but she’s already a little worried that naming it after such a popular term wasn’t the best strategy. Even if the term disappears, though, the tightrope walk of authenticity and aspiration, of withholding and sharing, is not going anywhere. This is just how we critique power — and those who wield it.

What We’re Really Saying When We Talk About Gatekeeping