You've seen the videos. "I’m sorry," a woman with perfect skin will say to her phone. "But I’m not telling you guys just yet. I’m gatekeeping it."
She is talking about her moisturizer, and by gatekeeping she means that she’s not going to say the name of the cream she uses in the video. This is presumably because she’s worried that once she shares that information, the moisturizer will grow in popularity and become more difficult for her to buy.
The woman wrinkles her nose and smiles knowingly at the camera. "Sorry!" she winks. In a week’s time, she will probably make another video revealing the name of the item, once enough of her followers have asked, guaranteeing viewership.
You’ve come across these videos because gatekeeping is a term which has proliferated across social media recently. It crops up largely when someone has bought a product and is deciding on camera whether or not they’ll deign to tell you about it. In general it’s seen as something bad, or not in keeping with the democratic nature of the internet, perhaps. But I sometimes wonder, as we constantly throw information and recommendations at each other, might there be some value in keeping certain things just for yourself?
With regards to the actual meaning of the term, real-world gatekeeping is actively harmful rather than just an annoying thing that prestige girlies do online. Though the internet, as it tends to do, has diluted the phrase down to an individualistic throwaway, its origins are much more about collective interests.
Gatekeeping is about keeping people away from places and power. The phrase’s meaning lies in the idea that certain groups — non-white people, LGBTQ+ people, people who aren’t men — are frozen out of certain professions, places, and positions of power by those who’ve traditionally occupied them. This ensures that these spaces stay the same, never breached by anyone who might challenge their (usually regressive) values.
To illustrate this, you could use journalism as a good example of a gatekept industry, though there are many others. A recent Reuters survey analyzing media brands in five global markets (Brazil, Germany, South Africa, the United Kingdom, and the United States) observed that "23% of the 81 top editors across the 100 brands covered are people of color, despite the fact that, on average, 44% of the general population across all five countries are people of color."
This is evidence that people of color are still shut out of journalism on a systematic level, which lowers the quality and accuracy of what newsrooms produce, which in turn is a net negative for the world at large. Even where organizations have consciously diversified their hiring, it’s been found that they often don’t do enough to change internal culture and ensure they are genuinely good workplaces for these new hires.
This is real gatekeeping — not a TikToker declining to tell their followers where they got their eye serum.
The internet is a space where we are compelled to share and so gatekeeping, as it's understood on apps like TikTok, feels like breaking the rules. It’s also true that sharing is largely a nice thing (and useful for many reasons, for example: connecting with friends or pointedly adding posts to your Instagram story to make people fancy you). But sometimes it can get a bit much.
Social media can make us feel like if we’re not yelling online about how much we enjoy something, then maybe we’re not even that into it in the first place. It has also complicated questions of taste in the first place. Like, did I decide I wanted to see these compilation videos of fights in branches of McDonald’s or do I just like them because an algorithm has now shown me enough of them?
As such, I don’t always like the constant provocation to share. There can be genuine communion in sharing and the internet can be a great tool for that. But sometimes I don’t want to share! I spend a lot of time going down rabbit holes and there are times when I want to be greedy and luxuriate in the great, weird TV show or online shop I have found. I want to keep it to myself and like something just because I like it, not because it would be cool to tell people about it.
Obviously this is a bit different from gatekeeping as it pertains to products but the same impulse to constantly divulge applies to our wider interests, too. Social media is so pervasive that we can sometimes feel that it has a right to everything in our lives. As a result of this, I sometimes make an effort not to post about the stuff I like the best. I suppose it’s an exercise in not seeking outside validation for everything.
Ultimately, TikTokers and whoever else, like the rest of us, are entitled to do what they want. A viral video is far from conferring the power and privilege that actual gatekeepers possess and wield every day. But the language we use matters, and using the term in this way simply waters down its potency. Perhaps it comes down to a reframing of what we expect from each other — and ourselves — on the internet. Maybe if everyone kept more for themselves rather than feeling the need to contribute to the constant online churn, we might feel entitled to less from others — and terms like gatekeeping would be left to their much more important, real-world devices.