Walled Gardens and Facebook enabled protests on the Web

Sergey Brin, one of the co-founders of Google, spoke recently with UK newspaper The Guardian in which he stated that “very power forces [have] lined up against the open Internet on all sides and around the world.”  Brin levies this charge against the restrictive policies of certain governments, the entertainment industry’s efforts to address piracy, and walled gardens.

This last group caught my interest.  I asked myself: In what ways is Facebook different from other walled gardens?  Who is being restricted by Facebook’s walled garden?  And, is Facebook necessarily harmful for the open Internet?

A “walled garden” is a term-of-art in the information technology world that means an Internet service that offers an environment in which content is controlled by a particular company.  Some examples of these walled gardens are AOL during the 1990s, Facebook, Apple App Store, Amazon’s Kindle, or Barnes & Noble’s Nook.  Let’s take Amazon’s Kindle, for example.  To use the Kindle, you have to purchase e-books from Amazon directly.  True, you can add books or PDF documents to the Kindle that come from some source other than Amazon.  But, the Amazon’s ecosystem surrounding the Kindle makes it overwhelmingly likely that you’d purchase a book from them.  The situation is similar for Apple’s iPod/iPhone.

Undoubtedly, one can make the argument that because the Kindle or the iPhone exist in a walled garden, the tendency is for market forces to favor proprietary formats or restrictive DRM schemes.  But, the explicit inclusion of Facebook in this category alludes to something worth examining– Facebook, unlike the iPod or the Kindle, does not have an object that is associated with the service.  There is no Facebook computer or Facebook cellular phone which ties consumers to Facebook’s ecosystem.  Owning a Kindle, on the other hand, ties one to Amazon’s e-books.  Likewise, owning an iPod means one effectively must use Apple’s iTunes service.  Again, while the ecosystem does not necessarily restrict access to other content.  The ecosystem makes the content far more likely to come from that particular walled garden.

So, what is Facebook’s walled garden “walling off”?  There are companies like Zynga that owe their financial success in large part to Facebook.  One could argue that these companies are restricted to Facebook’s ecosystem because they, like Zynga, developed a product dependent on Facebook’s user base and development API.  That suggests that Facebook is not selling its wares to its users; rather, its main customer base is the advertisers and application developers that use its platform.  Facebook’s users are merely the commodity that is being sold.

Of course, this is nothing new.  Television has long “sold” the attention of viewers to advertisers.  Moreover, television’s format also constituted, in a sense, a walled garden that restricted advertisers.  The analogue is the notion of “prime time” television or the 30-second advertising spot.  Television commercials had to be around 30-seconds because that was what networks were offering.  Of course, television networks had to pay attention to their viewers in a roundabout way.  If only to ensure that viewers were available to be “sold” to advertisers.

Apple sells its iPod and iPhone in an attempt to “lock” its consumers in the iTunes ecosystem.  Amazon sells its Kindle so that its consumers purchase content from Amazon.  Aside from the objects (iPod/Kindle) that are associated with these other examples, the common feature is that the interaction is almost exclusively between the company that controls the walled garden and the consumer.  That is, the consumer buys only what is offered by the company, for the most part.  Again, while television may be a less apropos example of a walled garden.  Again, television network serves shows and advertising to its viewers so that those viewers’ attention can be sold to advertisers.  Television networks had to interact to some extent with viewers, and both viewers and advertisers “consumed” whatever the network provided.  A television network serves shows and advertising to its viewers so that those viewers’ attention can be sold to advertisers.  But what this also means is that there is virtually no interaction among the consumers behind the walled garden.  Granted, people can post their opinions about stuff on iTunes or Amazon.  But, those opinions are limited and are not the main point behind these services.  Advertising executives can chat about networks and e-book readers can complain offline, but those interactions happen outside the walled garden.

Facebook is different because its users actually produce a valuable content for Facebook. The interaction among “walled garden users” that happen outside the garden is explicitly inside the wall.  In fact, the utility of Facebook is that users interact directly with other users.  Moreover, users interact with advertisers and application producers.  I think this is a telling feature.  As such, the walled garden metaphor is probably not appropriate for Facebook, after all.  I’m not sure what an appropriate metaphor would be.  Undeniably, there are aspects that mark Facebook as similar to, say, television networks.  But because this interaction is so predominant, there is an unpredictability that marks Facebook as something different.  Granted, as Tarleton Gillespie pointed out, there is curation that happens on Facebook.  Facebook can and does silence some voices.  But, that doesn’t preclude other voices to be spoken freely.  In fact, in many instances, Facebook was a platform that enabled political protests.  (See here, here, and here.)

Sergey Brin’s charges that Facebook, among others, is dangerous to the notion of the open Internet.  At first glance, I’m inclined to agree.  But, then again, because Facebook has been used to enable marginalized voices, is it really?

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