Tag Archives: gatekeepers

Signposts, not gatekeepers

I wrote recently about gatekeeping and why I don’t much like it. There are of course better ways to do things. For the person who wants to improve standards in any context, it is better to be a signpost than a gatekeeper.

Rather than trying to keep the ‘wrong sort’ out, a signpost makes it their job to flag up what’s good. Signposts put themselves out there, because otherwise what use are we? We make it our business to know useful things and to share that information with those who come along. We don’t turn that process into a demand to have things done our way. All of my favourite bloggers operate this way and I am happy to say I can think of enough active signpost people that it doesn’t make sense to try and name everyone.

Putting up blog posts can be a way of playing signpost, but it works in person, too. Here’s an example I’ve seen repeatedly in folk circles: Someone comes along, new to folk. They may know a few chords on a guitar and a few songs, but the songs aren’t folk songs – most likely Streets of London and a couple of things by The Beatles. At this point a gatekeeper would tell them off for not doing proper folk, make them feel small, inadequate and unwanted. By this means, gatekeepers prevent communities from growing.

A signpost will make encouraging noises because they want this person to come back. They may ask the newbie if they know a song – any song the signpost thinks would suit them – or if they’ve heard a performer the signpost thinks is in a similar style. With encouragement and suggestions, the signpost helps the newbie find their way into folk and expand their repertoire. If they don’t engage, they may move on because there’s not a great deal of point coming to a folk club regularly if you have no interest in folk music, and that’s fine – that’s what open mics are for.

Signposts support their communities by helping new people come in and find their way about. They support and encourage excellence by gently pointing people towards things that would help. They encourage and build up, where gatekeepers discourage and knock down. A signpost wants more good stuff, where a gatekeeper wants the power to exclude and the importance of being able to say who crosses the threshold.

You don’t have to know much to start being a signpost. All you need to know is where to point people. In its own way, being a signpost is also a position of power because you’ll decide what to recommend and what to not mention, or discourage. Your opinions and preferences will inform where you suggest people go. A signpost can also be unfair and unreasonable, can exclude for reasons of power, or can mostly signpost towards themselves and the things they sell. The act of signposting is not itself proof of quality. But on the whole I’d still prefer a bad signpost to any sort of gatekeeper.


Self policing and policing others

In any community, there are always people who want to police things. People who want to be gatekeepers and set standards and say who is allowed in and who is not good enough. It is of course a position of power to be able to force others out, or define the boundaries. To be the person whose version of ‘the right way’ becomes definitive is a powerful place to be. Are you doing folk music right? Is your take on Steampunk really Steampunk enough? Are you a proper Druid? Are you a real geek? Do you know enough to be entitled to call yourself a fan of X, Y or Z?

It’s bloody miserable stuff. Mostly what it creates is discomfort, drama, power struggles, resentment and an undermining of creativity and new thinking. I can’t think of a single example of someone trying to play gatekeeper in a community in this way where things have been better and happier as a direct consequence.

If you think there’s a right and proper way to do things, it is better to lead by example. Live your truth. Demonstrate why your way is good, or best, or the only possible way. People may or may not agree with you. We have the right to make our own rules for ourselves, that’s fine. We have the right to adopt the ways of doing things that we see and are inspired by. There’s nothing wrong with following, and everything wrong with being told that you have to follow.

If you really are right about things then it will be self evident and people will come onboard. If your ideas are brilliant and persuasive, exposure will be enough to persuade people. Anyone who has to bully and harass people into agreeing with them is not really demonstrating a belief in the intrinsic excellence of what they’re advocating.