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Summary:

Open-web advocates may long for a revolt against walled gardens, but in the end the success of a social network is determined by the willingness of users to put up with its restrictions. For Facebook, that is both its biggest strength and its biggest weakness.

As Facebook draws close to the billion-user mark and a $100-billion market valuation, the giant social network’s dominance has reignited old fears about the decline and fall of the open web. John Battelle argues that we need a manifesto for the truly open Internet in order to rally the troops, but blogging veteran Robert Scoble says it is too late and he has already given up the fight. And longtime technology watcher and investor Esther Dyson says we need to remember that the Internet is prone to cycles of open vs. closed. In the end, the only thing that determines whether a closed model succeeds is the willingness of users to put up with its restrictions. For Facebook, that is both its biggest strength and its biggest weakness.

Not that long ago, the open web seemed to be the default for most users: America Online, one of the longest-lasting of the old walled-garden portals, was mostly an afterthought, used only by older consumers who were tied to its dial-up business (a business that even now continues to provide the lion’s share of AOL’s declining profits). Google was the model of the open web, with its objective algorithms and its commitment to sending users away instead of trying to keep them on its site. Websites and blogs were run on open platforms like WordPress (see disclosure), TypePad or Blogger, and anyone could link to anyone.

Then along came Facebook, which took the ultimate “gated community” approach right from the outset by restricting access to university students. As it grew and expanded, it maintained this walled-garden strategy by making it easy for users (and their precious data) to get into its network but much harder for them to get out — something Google highlighted in an attack on the social network’s data-hoarding policies. And the trend has only continued with the rollout of Facebook’s frictionless-sharing apps, which effectively make the network the hub of personal activity of all kinds, even newspaper reading.

If the garden is appealing, the walls don’t matter

What is the benefit for users that makes them so eager to place their entire online experience in the hands of a single company? The same as it was with America Online: namely, the fact that it provides a friendlier, safer — and ultimately easier to use — version of the Internet for non-geeks. As John Battelle puts it:

The open web is full of spam, shady operators, and blatant falsehoods. Outside of a relatively small percentage of high quality sites, most of the web is chock full of popup ads and other interruptive come-ons [but] in the curated gardens of places like Apple and Facebook, the weeds are kept to a minimum, and the user experience is just . . . better.

For open-web advocates like Dave Winer, there is almost nothing to like about this phenomenon — or, to shift the spotlight from Facebook for a moment, the fact that a powerful, global real-time information network like Twitter is controlled by a single corporate entity. The risks for Twitter users have been highlighted by the company’s announcement that it will censor tweets if asked to do so and by attempts on the part of countries like Brazil (and even the U.S.) to force the company to either turn over data or block specific accounts that they disapprove of.

Open alternatives such as Status.net and the would-be Facebook competitor Diaspora exist, and they have attracted support from the hard-core geek community. But they have made virtually zero impact on the vast majority of Internet users, who seem more than happy to disregard all the warnings about proprietary models coming from open advocates, including the man who invented the World Wide Web.

If there is one thing that we can learn from the runaway success of Apple, it is that the vast majority of users don’t particularly care about abstract concepts like openness or metaphors like walled gardens. What they care about, as Chris Saad of Echo and Dataportability.org noted recently, is that the products or services that matter to them about are easy to use and provide some benefit to them. In effect, they are willing to make a trade-off between the virtues of data portability or the downsides of having a single entity control their experience and the benefit they get from that product or service.

If you stop being useful, users will revolt

If you have a really attractive garden, users are more than happy to spend time there without moaning about the walls or the gates. In a nutshell, that explains Facebook’s dramatic rise: It has made connecting with friends and sort-of friends so easy and provided so many obvious benefits — photo sharing being one of the main ones — that most users have been blissfully unconcerned about giving so much of their personal data to the network. And while some argue they should be paid for their membership, others clearly feel that the trade-off is more than worth it.

So far, so good. But the looming risk for both Facebook and any other provider that wants to control the output of its users — including Twitter and Google — is that even complacent users can become militant when the service they depend on mistreats them in some way. We have seen flashes of that whenever Facebook changes its privacy settings, when Twitter changed its censorship rules, and even when Google started fiddling with its search results to promote its own social network instead of remaining objective about its content. And we see flashes of it when Facebook blocks content, as it has with breast-feeding photos — causing demonstrations by outraged user groups.

While none of these tremors has turned into a seismic shift so far, that doesn’t mean they won’t. AOL seemed so dominant in its time that it managed to convince Time Warner that it was worth $160 billion, in what is still one of the most disastrous technology deals of all time. But it faded because users realized that the benefits of being inside its garden were far outweighed by the downsides and that the open Internet wasn’t so bad after all. Will users eventually come to the same conclusion about Apple or Facebook — or even Google?

For social networks and tools like Facebook and Twitter, the relationship with users is an even more fragile one. Facebook’s 800 million users may seem like an unassailable moat around the giant social network, but if enough of them decide they are better off elsewhere, Facebook will become a ghost town. Twitter could easily meet the same fate. As Mark Zuckerberg prepares to count his billions, he needs to remember that in the end, it’s not open or closed that wins — it’s useful and not useful.

Disclosure: WordPress is backed by Automattic, a venture capital firm that is an investor in the parent company of this blog, Giga Omni Media. Om Malik, the founder of Giga Omni Media, is also a venture partner at True.

Post and thumbnail photos courtesy of Flickr users Fabio Venni and Giuseppe Bognanni

  1. Karttikeya Bihani Tuesday, February 7, 2012

    The hell I do.

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  2. The “if it works, and it pleases us, why should we care?” mentality is so inherently flawed that it’s hard to express in simple terms. Like trying to describe the blue of the sky.

    As long as these walled gardens are opt-in, and there still EXISTS an open web (and I believe there always will), then I can’t fault people for their choices. But if it reaches a point that nobody realizes they have a choice, or if they’re forced into a choice they don’t really want (I’m still without a Facebook account despite many companies’ growing reliance on it for dissemination of information as well as for authentication… but how long will it last?) then something far for subtle and exponentially more insidious has happened, and I can’t feel anything but fear for that prospect. No soma for me, please, even if I think I like it.

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    1. Greg…Right on….!!!! We the “Community” that has give billions of dollars in value to the closed silos that are FB and Twitter deserver better than this….We are not products to be sold to the highest bidders…We are the life blood and revenue stream…..Treat us with respect….Open up…sooner or later we will open our eyes and see it we have participated in and were victims of one of the largest extractions of community value ever witnessed …

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  3. I have started wondering if DNS with its TLD hierarchic scheme is driving some of the clustering. Users can’t organize their data and share it without being dependent on some other entity to provide the addressing.

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  4. sure I do, I am from China, hundreds of millions of Chinese people do. you may go to China to have the first hand experience before you write this article.

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  5. “Facebook’s 800 million users may seem like an unassailable moat around the giant social network, but if enough of them decide they are better off elsewhere, Facebook will become a ghost town”

    I’m curious to know what that looks like. Facebook has an enormous advantage because everybody is already there. Unlike AOL, being the biggest game in town when you’re a social network really is key. It’s not fun to be social if there’s no one to be social with.

    So then you have G+ which could theoretically siphon users from FB since they already have an enormous user base but then you’ve still got this problem of open.

    I guess my question is: how does an ‘open web’ social network convince everyone and their grandmother that they’re better than Facebook?

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    1. Perhaps the solution is to avoid “social network” activity altogether. Punt the smart-phone while you are at it.

      How wasteful of resources is it that the MySpace/Facebook/Twitter/etc. cultural trend, demanding everyone participate in these time-wasting virtualities, has created a service industry managing social profiles for people who fully realize they have better things to do?

      Grandma doesn’t need the Twitter and Facebook, unless you’ve locked her in a a dark little room and she has nothing else to do while waiting to expire. Neither do the rest of us, really.

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  6. 20% care, 80% don’t. Those who care are very vocal as evidenced by the posts below. Those who don’t would never read your article in the first place.

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  7. First of all this is an extremely flawed argument, first of all facebook allows users to post links to other sites, I do it regularly, second facebook or any social network is not a walled garden the way AOL was, in AOL you had all of the AOL presented first and foremost, you had to wade through it to get to the web.
    Facebook is not the same, sure some users may make it their home page, but most users including me still use the google search site as their homepage, their is so much you can’t do in facebook, pay bills, watch netflix. I don’t know a single user who uses only one social network site and does nothing else on the internet. If you can still choose what url to type in your browser and the internet isn’t censored, it’s still open.

    The real argument over the internet being open or closed is do we censor the internet, something that has gotten a lot of attention since SOPA, that’s the real arguement.

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  8. I don’t have strong feelings about this, but I see why open web advocates do. Being open is one of those things that has huge long term consequences even if in the short term it doesn’t make much difference. Think how different the world would be if Richard Stallman had not been so committed to creating an open version of Unix over 30 years ago. It’s not just the technology that has resulted, but the attitude.

    Startups and hackers now embrace openness as a way of being, not just a business strategy. I don’t think that culture would exist if not for people like Stallman, even though he’s never been very interested in making money.

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  9. “Do users really care whether the web is open or not?”

    Yes. Yes, we do.

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  10. No, they don’t care. Facebook doesn’t stop users from being prisoners of the ultimate time-wasting tool. Don’t get me wrong, it’s useful to have them and give them proper use, but the vast majority use it for nothing but stupidity so they won’t really give a crap if the Web is open or not. They will care more about their Facebook.

    I have always believed that mass manipulation are powerful tools and Facebook is one. It makes the masses care more about their appearance, even online, than what truly goes on in not only their countries, but communities.

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  11. Heather Shoemaker Friday, February 10, 2012

    “If there is one thing that we can learn from the runaway success of Apple, it is that the vast majority of users don’t particularly care about abstract concepts like openness or metaphors like walled gardens.”

    While I cannot speak for the “vast majority,” I am personally extremely passionate about open access to information and knowledge and the Internet as an ideal conduit. That said, I also believe each individual should have the right and ability to withhold certain personal information from the public at large.

    I do have a Facebook page and enjoy the ability I have there to share information solely with those whom I choose. I am not devoted to Facebook and if I felt my rights constricted through its use, I would not hesitate to discontinue its use. Until then, it is nice to have a place where I can interact specifically with those individuals I wish. I do not see anything inherently wrong with individuals cultivating a “safe zone” they share with those they choose. There are many other networks I use that I do not restrict in the same way, but this is – and I believe should be – my choice.

    “AOL seemed so dominant in its time … But it faded because users realized that the benefits of being inside its garden were far outweighed by the downsides and that the open Internet wasn’t so bad after all.”

    As an original user of AOL (I never thought I would feel so old at 27!), I did not use its service out of fear of the open Internet, but because there simply were not many well-known options at the time. I would venture to guess that, like me, the many AOL ex-users switched not out of reduced fear but out of increased opportunities.

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  12. If you mean do I care about supposedly anti-piracy bills, yes, I do care! I wrote my Congressmen (they’re all men) to ask them to vote against bills like SOPA (Stop Online Piracy Act) and PIPA. I hold several copyrights, do not want my work pirated, but would never approve of any legislation that is used like a sledgehammer: breaking apart not only the dangers but also the beauty and intellectualism that is mainly the internet.

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  13. Privacy?

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