The image above is from XKCD's "Instagram" comic. Instagram is a prime example of a walled garden.
You may have read the term "walled gardens" used to refer to social media platforms like Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. The term is used in the context of technology to describe a platform that is not easily extensible or open. If you use a tool that operates as a walled garden, there are defined interactions that you can and cannot do. Developers might get a bit more leeway to do more with a platform -- so they can build tools that work with said platform -- but over the last few years this has not been prevalent.
One thought has been bouncing around in my mind for the last few months: did social media need to evolve in this way? Money has been central to social media and has created some hard-to-beat incentives around platforms being closed. A social media platform that is completely open and that provides free and comprehensive permissions for developers to create new things is going to run into continual issues with monetization. How does a social network make money if all data on the platform can be represented in a third-party client?
Technology should ultimately be built in service of people. Social media businesses -- and other walled gardens, for the term can be applied to other business types -- have been able to build technologies that serve people, at scale. They have brought around new de facto standards on how we communicate on the web, particularly in the realm of interface design. Social networks have, in many cases, done a great job of building something that "just works." I don't need to do much to send a message to a friend via Instagram. I don't contemplate this enough but I'm in awe that I can so easily send a message for free to someone on another continent via Instagram and not have to worry about any delivery issues (whereas with iMessage, for instance, I'm always concerned that my message pings back if I lose WiFi access, only to later see a notification saying the message didn't go through). Technology has come a long way.
But, I wonder: what are we missing with the current arrangement? The answer to that is I don't think any of us know. We know roughly what would happen if social networks were more open. If this were the case, everyone -- perhaps aided by tools built by developers -- could customise their social media experience to the extent they desire. We could have more social media clients. Tools could interoperate. Creatives can think of novel ways to express ourselves online and developers can build tools around that. We could usher in a new era of online communciation, built for people, without social networks taking control.
Not everyone would take the option to fully customise their social media experience, but at least there would be an option.
The technology behind social media is complicated. Building open social networks that provide some degree of interoperability and customisation is a difficult challenge, even today as there have been plenty of explorations by developers into how we can build more open social interactions on the web. That doesn't mean it's not worth trying. With this personal website, I have discovered that the web by which we live -- where "platforms" are the main characters in our every day experience -- is not the only web out there.
I am not old enough to have nostalgia for the "old days" of the web, nor do I think such a mindset is helpful. We have moved on and we should consider all of the advancements in internet communication over the last decade to be key details upon which to build new systems. We know more about what to do and what not to do to build tools that aid in our communication. innovation will not come from duplicating existing services and making them open and interoperable, either. Openness and interoperability are only the first steps. It's what we do with those powers that count.
The vast majority of people do not care about how a platform works. They care about what it allows them to do. An open platform is not inherently more competitive than a less open one. There is proof of this to be seen in open source vs. proprietary software. One such example is operating systems. Linux performs so well because it does a job really well. Openness likely aided in its growth but it's what people did with that openness that counts.
There are challenges with more open approaches to social media, enough to warrant extensive academic study. How do open social networks prevent against mass data collection? How do platforms ensure people understand what data is shared when they plug in a new tool that lets them accomplish something new? How do we build experiences that feel just as seamless as the ones today? These questions will perhaps never have answers.
This is a tough problem but we are not at square one. There are technologies and standards being incubated in the IndieWeb community that look at how we can build a more open, interoperable, social web. Mastodon has created an interoperable social network where you can choose where your profile is hosted; you don't need to give your data to one massive organization that can analyse, aggregate, and use your data to their heart's content.
When I think about communcation on the web, I see an area ripe for experimentation and exploration. I myself have indulged in adventures in the realm of open social media many times over the last few years. I am excited by the possibilities to create people-centric, open experiences on the web.
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