Walled Gardens

Well I talked about posting this recently and its been becoming more obvious in recent weeks so I figured I’d make a short post about the technological phenomenon of a walled garden, which wiki defines as:

In the telecommunications and media industries, a “walled garden” refers to a carrier or service provider’s control over applications, content, and media on platforms (such as mobile devices) and restriction of convenient access to non-approved applications or content

However this definition doesn’t quite cut it, as you need to add the shift of focus of data ownership, which I feel is the important thing.

The example that everyone will be familiar with these days is the infamous Facebook, which has used every traditional trick in the book in its efforts to construct a business model of being a walled garden.

In the early days of computing each computer was essentially a walled garden pretty much, incompatible operating systems, networks, everything. It took DARPA and the threat of nukes to make ARPANET and start the idea of interconnecting these walled gardens over a common set of protocols. This idea grew and the Internet Engineering Task Force was formed to help everyone get together and bicker write standards.

Early successes for the idea of federated systems communicating with platform independent protocols (i.e. each site is a kingdom of its own, its internal workings are black boxes, you don’t know whats going on and its not your business. The admins of the remote site know best what they should be doing and how their systems should be configured, and as long as all communications between sites adheres to the agreed protocols then everyone is happy) were things like UUCP which was a method of transferring files between machines and underpinned the other early wins, Email and . If you want to understand how mail works go read RFC 821, its seriously like 40 pages or something and while the standards have moved on the fundamentals are still adhered to.

However while having standards for intersite communication worked fine for the larger Internet (where engineers solved problems with small programs which were distributed between sites, and later often formed the basis for the initial versions of standards) during the 80s/early-90s there was the rise of the commercial civilian internet access. This gave rise to the first of the walled gardens.

Initial versions of Bulletin Boards were usually walled, files could go up or down to them, messages could be sent to other users but that was it. Eventually these limits started to chafe users and BBSs got email gateways and other systems for inter-BBS or BBS-to-email communication (often over UUCP links as far as I can tell). These gardens were often run by understanding site admins and hence didn’t have some of the problems of later systems. The barriers to leaving these systems were mainly technological, in that disk space was precious so making sure you had copies of all your messages and files was a problem in disk storage.

The next incarnation of such ideas was the first of the true walled gardens. AOL was infamous for offering a connection from your home to their servers, where they would give you mail (to other people on AOL) current events and other stuff (such as access to the wider internet, through their horrible slow proxies that mangled web pages as they came through). However they encouraged you to stay on their system, very shortly they offered proper email, and later Access to Usenet. However AOL seemed to be designed to try and turn its users into passive media consumers (something they seemed to not really want) and eventually they started to leave simply because it was a shitty service, that and the main barrier they put in place to keep people there was that you would lose your AOL email address, which was your whole ID which everyone knew you by! However the rise of free webmail and cheap mail hosting rendered this a useless barrier and the users fled. I still blame AOL however for setting the business model for most of the rest of the following sites, in that the business model was only partly about access to the service, mostly it was about users as the product, their behaviour was monitored for market research, their eyeballs and concentration sold to advertisers and I think they even pioneered the idea that users data was owned by AOL through a restrictive EULA that claimed to snaffle everything you transmitted through them (a tactic most content middlemen try once in a while and give up on when they get spotted).

After this the whole concept of users as the product became big news. With websites moving towards a simple model (I’ll let you all fill in the blanks wrt to Myspace and other crap):

  1. Establish a walled garden
  2. Get users on it with claims they can communicate/advertise/whore themselves/look at porn
  3. Sell ads like its going out of style/spy on the users/sell everything you know

Also Walled Gardens violate rules 10 and 11 of the infamous 12 Networking Truths.

(10) One size never fits all.
(11) Every old idea will be proposed again with a different name and a different presentation, regardless of whether it works.

Specifically most internet message boards are walled in versions of Usenet, done really badly (i.e. no threading, indexing, searching, offline saving, accessibility, cross-board communication, etc.etc.etc. look they’re just fucking shit stop using them). Additionally Facebook et. al. fall foul of 10, attempting to make one thing that fits all, instead of a loosely affiliated series of sites that all pass “status” like messages.

Facebook (to move to the obvious example) however pretty much perfected this model, making something at once repulsive and beautiful. Their pull was that everyone is on facebook, and if you’re not then you miss out on what your friends are doing, and being invited to social events. However the real genius was that all the content pretty much was users, it wasn’t just that users were media consumers (something they get bored of) it was that the users were pulled in by all the talk and photos and games they could play with their friends.

However the nasty part was the barriers to leaving. The social leverage they have/had (its starting to slip) gives them the really big stick, however its the fact that people have posted diary entries, messages and conversations between friends, pictures of events and pretty much everything else and most importantly there is no way to extract that information is the biggest barrier to entry. If you leave and you’ve been using Facebook heavily then you are wiping clean your digital existence for the past few years and starting again.

So what to do about this?

Well the solution that presents itself to me (mostly because I’ve been immersed in the aforementioned IETF federated protocol based services) is to break up your life over a series of platforms that most importantly always offer you an exit strategy.

For example I like blogging at LJ, mostly because it allows me to mirror all my entries offline using a program like LogJam. Should LJ piss me off I know that their software is open source, and there are other hosting providers. I can simply upload my journal to another hosting provider with a bit of fiddling or if I’m feeling adventurous I can download a copy, put it on my own server and upload my mirror of my blog and within the hour it’ll all be available. However I could also buy say wordpress hosting off a company (and keep backups) which would offer me a blog independent of any organisation. For microblogging (twitter/facebook/google+) I make sure I don’t use them for anything important really, their just for sharing funny URLs and passing the time really.

I don’t really take photos, but if I did I’d be tempted to look at say flickr or one of the other places, somewhere that offered a bulk downloading tool, something I could use to make sure I had a copy of everything.

For communication between people I heartily recommend email. 30 years after it was initially made its still easy to communicate between anywhere and anywhere else. As for mail hosting I personally buy hosting from a third party and then keep all my mail on my machine (and back it up). However if I couldn’t be bothered with this (and its tempting sometimes) then I’d either buy mail hosting from someone. The important thing is that I own the domain I use for email, if my provider pisses me off I could just move where its hosted and not lose communication with anyone.

The same can be done quite easily by anyone, buy a cheap domain (probably cost about a fiver a year) with some email hosting, just redirect everything to a webmail account that offers IMAP access (such as google, or a specialist webmail host). Then if your domain/mail hosts pisses you off just up sticks and get another one (there are loads) and if Google piss you off then simply open another account somewhere else and use something like Thunderbird to just drag and drop all your mail from one account to another.

The lesson from all this ranting?

For actually using these Walled Gardens I’m hoping that Google+ and Facebook get into long lasting competition, because this will hopefully make them lower the barriers so that people can flow between them, and it may keep them innovating and adding actual user value to keep users, not just giggling and knowing there’s little you can do. Failing that we need to hope that Distributed Social Networking sites like status.net and Diaspora reach a critical mass and hence become useful.

Recognise the tactics of walled gardens, WE ARE THE PRODUCT but we don’t have to roll over and take it. Use walled gardens for their strong points and FUCK THEM FOR EVERYTHING ELSE. It takes a little effort but own your shit get independent hosting, keep copies of your mail and photos, back them up. Always keep in mind that if your digital existence is important to you (pictures and messages) then it behoves you to take responsibility to not get scammed by these services, always have a way out and don’t hesitate to give them the finger once they cross the line of control or ethics, don’t lock yourself into a provider because once the screws tighten and there is competition they will lock everything down and stop you jumping ship for as long as they can to milk you.

Be seeing you.

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