The latest buzzy online response to disagreements is to accuse people of being “gatekeepers.”
It feeds into a broader social-media trend of democratizing information, spearheaded by Gen-Z.
Technically you’re probably a gatekeeper too, but that’s not always necessarily a bad thing.
Being a gatekeeper is just about the worst thing you can be accused of online.
Every few years, the internet cycles through a new buzzy clap-back phrase that’s instantly recognizable by its lifecycle, speeding from valid criticism to Twitter cliché until it hits the mainstream, finding its way into op-ed headlines and political discourse before being relegated exclusively to ironic use due to its cringe-inducing outdatedness.
You may remember the “check your privilege” phrase, circa 2012, which was counterbalanced by calling those using it “snowflakes” and “social justice warriors.” Then came the age of calling out “virtue signalers,” who were swiftly put in their place with a well-timed “this you.”
Now, the 2020s have ushered in their own social-media-specific takedown. So abhorred is the concept of “gatekeeping” that it’s been lumped in with “girlbossing” and “gaslighting” to spawn a meme.
Gatekeepers exclude people — the exact opposite of the democratization of information
In its simplest form, “gatekeeping” is having access, opportunity, or knowledge — and then keeping it all to yourself. Gatekeepers, at least according to the internet, pull the ladder up behind them and exclude those with fewer opportunities from their space.
Gatekeeping can be Kylie Jenner refusing to share her favorite drink with her followers for fear that it will sell out as a result. But it can also be less specific, referring to people who maybe aren’t hiding something tangible but are telling others they’re not entitled to an opinion or behavior (whether warranted or not).
The concept of gatekeeping isn’t new, but data shows usage of the term is rising. According to Google Trends, search interest in “gatekeping” has increased in use since March 2020, peaking in January 2022, with searches for “gatekeeper” spiking in the subsequent months.
Calling out gatekeepers is a core tenet of extremely-online Gen-Z culture which, spurred by the pandemic and the evolution of social media, has come to uphold the democratization of, well, everything, as the ideal.
Anti-gatekeeping on its face is positive; it’s about breaking down barriers that can enforce systems of privilege. But when it’s coopted, it can lose all its original meaning.
The definition of ‘gatekeeper’ is so broad you’re probably one too — at least sometimes
Based on the vaguest definition possible, you’d struggle to go an entire day without doing something that could be classified as gatekeeping. Decline to share the secret ingredients in your legendary brownies? Gatekeeping. Suggest your monogamously partnered friends may not be qualified to weigh in on your dating life? Gatekeeping. Tell someone looking to pivot from a different career path that they need to retrain before applying for a job in your field? The worst kind of gatekeeping.
Unfortunately for the perpetrators, being accused of gatekeeping is impossible to refute, and trying to justify one’s gatekeeping will only open them up to further accusations of completely missing the point.
As a result, it’s become the perfect internet comeback, rivaling “OK Boomer” for its ability to make someone feel simultaneously ashamed by having their uncoolness put on blast, infuriated by its reductive connotations, and likely to double-down on their point of view.
In some cases, people argue they have a right and a duty to gatekeep their culture
During the pandemic, as Hawaii experienced a huge surge in tourism, many native Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders spoke out about their concerns, emphasizing rising cases of COVID-19 and tourism’s environmental impact. Many faced a curious response: people accusing them of “gatekeeping” the state.
Can you “gatekeep” a state by asking for tighter tourism regulations or suggesting visitors be more considerate of the land they’re flocking to? Some people thought so. Many creators responded to the accusation and found support in their comments section, but it didn’t shut down the criticism.
People of color have also been forced to defend themselves against accusations of gatekeeping when they call out cultural appropriation. Critics argue by doing so, they’re “gatekeeping” their cultural symbols and identities by telling certain groups of people that they shouldn’t coopt them.
But the point of calling out cultural appropriation is to redress the balance of power after centuries of oppression. Not all gatekeeping is created equal.
If applied with care, anti-gatekeeping culture may offer a more progressive worldview
As the wave of “gatekeeping” criticism crests on TikTok, it complements the dominance of another related genre that’s flourished on the app: We’ll call it the “gatebreak post.”
Where Instagram was about presenting the glossy veneer of life and work, TikTok is about taking the viewer behind the scenes and sharing previously inaccessible information and skills — the opposite of gatekeeping.
“Gatebreaking” content says there should be no barriers to knowledge, information, or perception of expertise. To believe otherwise is to support gatekeeping, forcing people to stay on the fringes of certain spaces.
So is “gatebreaking” good? Is “gatekeeping” bad? At its core, calling people out for gatekeeping offers a straightforward shorthand to call out exclusionary attitudes that reinforce inequality. But like most complex ideologies that have been distilled into an online buzzword, gatekeeping runs the risk of morphing into meaningless fodder for exasperated eye-rolls.
What began as a way to criticize people like Kylie Jenner for maintaining exclusive access to a type of soda is now being used as a stick with which to shut down any criticism.
If the internet is to learn from past mistakes, it may be time to start gatekeeping “gatekeeping.”
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