Facing the Truth, We All Love Walled Gardens
There was a recent article by Sam Biddle called “Facebook is AOLifying the Internet – and That Sucks“. It’s a pretty accurate take on what Facebook has become over the last few years as it considers many of the new features that Facebook has both developed and ripped off. The article itself was probably a slight ripoff of one that John C. Dvorak (In the morning to you.) had produced some months earlier, “Facebook is the New AOL,” that was essentially in the same vein.
The contention that the two authors share on Facebook is that they see it taking over everything that we as content consumers/producers do online in one giant all encompassing box. Facebook has transitioned from a site that simply allowed friends to connect, share pictures, and send messages to something entirely different, something that is very reminiscent of America Online.
In the mid to late 90’s AOL was king of the hill offering entrants into the online world a virtual sandbox of things to do and try. The service is often referred to as a gateway to the Internet. Personally I think that notion is incorrect. AOL was simply a gateway to AOL. In fact it wasn’t until years into the life cycle of the product that the company even provided a browser within the software to allow users to venture out into the wilderness of the “real” Internet. The notion always reminds me of that conversation Morpheus has with Neo about reality in the first Matrix film.
For those of us using AOL in those days the “real” Internet held this reputation of being the Wild Wild West. It was dangerous and mysterious. It’s possible that it was not safe. What if you were caught out there and were stranded? How would you get back to the safety and security that AOL had built. Within those walls you had everything you needed anyway, right? It was so beautiful inside, almost botanic. Why would anyone ever need to leave and go anywhere else?
What transpired was that we all (well, mostly, I’m still trying to break my mom free) figured out that we could get all of that stuff we were paying for free somewhere else. Email? Check. Chat? Check. Games, social content, message boards, research, shopping, and so on all cropped up for free on the “real” Internet.
Over the next almost half decade we all went running a muck across the free market of ideas in the Internet space. Some ideas were amazing, some were terrible. Some succeeded and some failed. Some really great ideas also failed, and some really bad ideas still exist. That’s just the reality of the market. But for the most part the best ideas rose to the surface and not all of these exist simply in a traditional computer experience.
iTunes, Netflix, Xbox Live, Facebook, Kindle, and app stores; all of these in some way are walled gardens. We helped to build them. We drove business toward them. And these ideas are not alone. The thing is that we are using them more, not less. They are getting more popular, not less popular.
In Tim Wu’s, The Master Switch, Wu argues that the Internet is headed toward this “app store” type environment that will create walled gardens and move away from the magical land of fairies and unicorns that he paints as the “open Internet”. This is generally part of his Net Neutrality barking and along with this usually comes blame for big business and infrastructure corporations. But the reality is that it is the content creators that develop these models on the net, not infrastructure.
Not only did content creators build the modern net as walled gardens, but we the consumer encouraged it. When we ask Facebook to give us easier ways to communicate and they add chat, and then messaging, and then email, and then we ask for things to do with friends and they give us games, and other forms of interaction we helped to create AOL all over again. Is that truly a terrible thing as Biddle and Dvorak decree? Not if that’s what people want. Facebook or any other popular website or platform is not fool proof. And if something better comes along it can be stopped.
Take one of those non-computer specific models for example. 7 years ago Sony dominated the gaming space and were leaps and bounds in front of the competition with their move into online gaming with the Playstation 2. Over the next half decade Microsoft learned from its earlier mistakes, innovated, developed a walled garden for gaming, music, movies, and communication with their Xbox Live product and left Sony scratching their heads.
If we face the truth, walled gardens attract users because they are easy to use, they have lots of integration, lots of options for what people do online are in one place, and frankly if user numbers are the indicator of success, then some of the top preforming online websites, applications, communities, and platforms are walled gardens. The fact simply must be faced, we love them, they work, and they are successful. In the near future we will begin to hear about how these models like the iTunes app store and maybe even Facebook need to be opened up. But we simply can’t regulate a winner. That’s a market decision, and the market is asking for pretty flowers and a guard gate.