From Inside Walled Gardens, Social Networks Are Suffocating The Internet As We Know It

The web isn't as open as it used to be. HootSuite CEO Ryan Holmes breaks down how social networks are killing the open web, and what it means for the future of connectivity and user experience.

Last month, in what was described by executives as a "round of spring cleaning," Google quietly axed one of its most beloved and longest running products, Google Reader. It wasn’t necessarily front-page news, but it should have been.

Millions of fans of RSS, who had grown to depend on Reader to pull in and display feeds from all of their favorite sites, were left out in the cold. But the deeper effect was more chilling: another nail in the coffin of the open web.

Once, the Internet stood for the idea that "any person could share information with anyone else, anywhere," to quote the web’s founding father, Sir Tim Berners-Lee. Today, that notion looks increasingly quaint. Without Google Reader, the days of RSS—a powerful way for any website to share content with the world—seem numbered. Mobile apps, meanwhile, are another challenge to the open web—self-contained islands that lock off their data from the wider net.

And, of course, there’s public enemy number one: social networks. The primary beef with platforms like Facebook and Google+ tends to be that user information is effectively walled off from the rest of the Internet. The treasure trove of content posted and shared within Facebook, for instance, is largely invisible outside of Facebook. Google can’t crawl it. Only select services can tap into it.

Open web advocate Chris Saad sums up what seems to be a sad picture: "URLs are fading into the background, native mobile apps are all the rage and Facebook threatens to engulf the web into a proprietary black hole."

It’s time to ask: Is the web as we know it about to be snuffed out?

The need to monetize

Behind all of this, of course, is money. Much of the commentary on the death of Google Reader mentions a critical fact: It’s awfully hard to monetize RSS. "RSS feeds allow viewers to keep up with websites without having to visit them at all," explains computer science professor and tech writer Srikumar Venugopal. "[This] means a loss of page views that are essential for generating the advertising turnover of the website owner." And herein lies a gritty, inescapable reality.

The beautiful sites we know and love, the apps we cherish, and the social networks we frequent generally need to make money somehow. Usually, that’s through advertising. The longer we spend on their sites and the more information we share, the more money they make in the form of ad revenue. That’s in large part why they’re walling themselves off and hoarding our data.

In this respect, it’s no coincidence that the death of Google Reader corresponds with the rise of Google’s own social networks. As Wired’s Christina Bonnington points out, "No matter what Mountain View says about changing user habits, though, both Now and Plus do one thing: They keep you in Google's world." Of course, this is an industry-wide trend. Not just Google, but Facebook, LinkedIn, and the other big networks are all gunning to become true media properties. Just like traditional media outlets—from TV networks to newspapers—the more users they have and the better they hook those users, the more they can charge for ads.

This is something that keeps me up at night. As someone who grew up with open APIs and RSS, I have fond memories of when the net was a more open and less commercial space. There’s no doubt that freewheeling hacker culture was and is behind many of the Internet’s innovations.

As a tech entrepreneur, however, I know that innovation also depends in part on monetization. At the end of the day, money is a wonderful incentivizer—I wouldn’t be in business if I didn’t believe that. Plus, many of these walled gardens are generally nice places to hang out. To quote entrepreneur and Wired founder John Battalle, "The open web is full of spam, shady operators and blatant falsehoods...In the curated gardens of places like Apple and Facebook, the weeds are kept to a minimum, and the user experience is just...better."

My own company, HootSuite, was an effort to resolve some of these personal tensions. By allowing users to access nearly all of the major social networks from one site, I hoped to make it easier to share data and ideas between walled gardens. The demise of Google Reader and the progressive closing of the open web, however, makes me wonder if we’re reaching a dangerous tipping point.

Restrictive APIs: The point of no return?

At some point, this increasing bunker mentality of walling off users and their data will inevitably begin to impede real progress—the kind of exciting advancements that have made the web such a fascinating, growing and, yes, profitable space over the last decade. The question we have to ask ourselves is, are we sabotaging the real potential of the web in the name of short-term profits and a better user experience?

The canary in the coal mine for me is the growing restriction of application programming interfaces, or APIs in tech-speak. APIs are sets of instructions that enable outside developers to interact with a particular platform. Incredibly handy tools like Yelp and Airbnb, for instance, exist because developers are able to tap into map APIs from the likes of Google and Apple. In this way, information from a single platform or data source can foster an entire flourishing ecosystem of linked apps.

APIs, in other words, are gates in the walled garden. They allow the wonderful content inside otherwise closed, proprietary spaces like Twitter and Facebook to get out in a controlled manner. This represents an elegant compromise between the open web of yesteryear, where information was shared freely and innovation flourished, and the more tightly controlled, monetized web of today, where profitability depends on keeping users and their data on your site.

The problem now, however, is that these gates are closing. In the past few years, major social networks have grown increasingly restrictive with their APIs. Once upon a time, for instance, Twitter prided itself on having an open API. The network's own founder, Biz Stone, credited this approach as "arguably the most important, or maybe even unarguably, the most important thing we've done with Twitter."

And in the beginning, thousands—if not millions—of apps were fed by Twitter’s gloriously open API. "This was the era of the mashup—taking data from different sources and scrunching them together to make something new and interesting," writes web developer Jeremy Keith. "[If] you wanted to show content from one site or app on your own site or app, you could use a simple, documented format to do so," notes his fellow technologist Anil Dash.

In recent years, however, Twitter has aggressively tightened the reins on outside developers, restricting its API and wresting control of apps back from third parties. In the interest of keeping users on its site, the network has put a chill on the development of apps that could leverage its data in new and interesting ways.

Which is not to say that Twitter has done anything wrong or hard to understand from a business perspective. This is another industry-wide movement. Facebook, for example, has pulled exactly the same about-face. Back in 2007, at the inaugural Facebook developers conference, Mark Zuckerberg proclaimed, "Right now, social networks are closed platforms, and today we’re going to end that." True to those words, Facebook initially embraced nearly any developer who built apps on its platform. Less than 18 months after that conference, however, the network began closing the door, cutting off developers and revoking API access as it sought to bring more and more functions in-house.

Regime change: When users rise up

Meanwhile, when it comes to sharing even basic data with each other, the big social networks are getting increasingly stingy. Even casual social media users have probably noticed the escalating tit for tat in recent months. After Instagram was acquired by Facebook in 2012, Twitter stopped letting Instagram users import their Twitter followers. Instagram retaliated by cutting off users’ ability to share photos on Twitter. More recently, Facebook has blocked users of Twitter-owned Vine from accessing their Facebook friends list on the app.

I want to be clear that I’m not advocating some kind of free-for-all, where anyone can have unrestricted, free access to Facebook’s or Twitter’s huge (and hugely valuable) data set. In the words of technology writer Marco Arment, "[the] bigger problem is that they’ve abandoned interoperability." The big networks increasingly want to "lock you in, shut out competitors and make a service so proprietary that even if you could get your data out" it would be useless.

And users are getting more and more frustrated. "We simply want any app we use that is owned by either of you to interact seamlessly, the way they used to," writes Mashable deputy editor Chris Taylor, in response to the Twitter-Facebook feud. "We'd just really like to see our Vine videos on Facebook and our Instagram snaps on Twitter."

For all of the walled gardens out there, this sentiment should be a major wake-up call. Users will stick around and play nicely inside the garden—lending their data to the sites and their eyeballs to advertisers—only so long as it’s convenient for them to do so. When users feel too restricted, too manipulated, or too isolated, they’ll begin to jump ship—no matter how beautifully the site or app is designed.

After all, we’ve been down this path before with another walled garden, which now lays in ruin. "[AOL] faded because users realized that the benefits of being inside its garden were far outweighed by downsides and that the open Internet wasn’t so bad, after all," writes GigaOm’s Mathew Ingram. The backlash to the decommissioning of Google Reader (a petition to bring it back already has 152,000 signatures) suggests that there is a growing minority of Internet users who resent the restrictions imposed by giant, proprietary sites that constrain the flow of data. More open APIs would provide needed gates to these walled gardens, allowing a freer exchange of information and spurring new waves of innovation—all without compromising the bottom line.

[Wall Vines: Gua via Shutterstock]

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6 Comments

  • Davide Antilli

    Bah. It's all down to the tools available to the user at the critical instance. If it's less trouble on FB fan page to locate and click on a YouTube link, say, then that's what you'll do on FB fan pages. But if you have a tool ready to hand that makes getting to that YouTube page less trouble still, that tool is what you'll use instead.

    And there is such a tool. It's up at thebutton.net. A single click takes you from a Facebook, G+ or Twitter page on 'Lady Gaga' to a Lady Gaga page on any other site. A single click loads, say, the Yahoo Movies page for a keyword like 'Inception' typed into your Google search box.

    The same single click button does the same job across all the entertainment and academic categories. It's like having all your bookmarks rolled into one.

    Up against greater convenience AND greater choice, I don't believe the walled gardens will survive as such.

  • Asa Weinstein

    One of the biggest impediments to a free-er web is the public incorporation of large internet based companies such as Facebook. Once companies are incorporated and made public they must return shareholders value. This means they then become predominantly accountable to their shareholders, not to the public at large. Private companies are more likely to be less rapacious than corporations in my view as they are less likely to do something that jeopardizes their legacy.
    I'm sure I would have difficulty in supporting this argument as there are very few privately held large internet corporations.
    Evidence over time has shown that large public corporations have a history of doing lots of reprehensible things in the name of profit. Even more so when unregulated by law or social constraints.
    I believe that internet based corporations are no different, it's just the way capitalism has worked until now.
    Unfortunately (or fortunately in some cases) governments have largely stayed out of the development of the internet economy.
    It may be time for governments to step in and legislate the open-ness of the internet. In my view the internet is no different from the wild west days of unregulated capitalism where large corporations had monopolies and oligopolies in certain segments of the market (oil for example). This situation is good for no-one except the corporation and its shareholders.
    If access to information is restricted inside the walled gardens of Google, Facebook and the like we may end up in the silo situation we found ourselves in, in the days before the open web. Think Compuserve, AOL etc...Just IMHO of course!

  • Lee Theodore

    I love this conversation. As a "millennial" (whatever that needs to mean) I have grown with the internet. I was happy when I was young when I began to understand that the internet could have served as this grand cosmic library crossed with a platform for interaction. Nope. not the case. It has become a convoluted tool of promotion and attention grabbing antics. I will not play down the gifts the internet has offered us in so many ways but the way that it is going, my kids won't believe the pyramids were made without an app.

  • Jnegroni

    I wouldn't be as negative. I would contend, Ryan, that Google Reader's demise was more of Google's lack of desire to put resources into maintaining it, something their employees frequently griped about. Meanwhile, new services are in fact creeping up to replace Reader. It's not unwise to say that Reader sort of choked the competition, and I wouldn't be surprised if we had a new king of the hill soon. 

  • Mike Breslin

    Intriguing argument, but it reminds me of the concerns when AOL and Time Warner merged, and people bemoaned its potential to "take over the Internet." As one columnist opined then (paraphrasing), "If that happens, people will simply build a new 'Internet' and use that one instead." The web will always be as open as we insist it be.

  • Anthony Reardon

    Absolutely!

    It's all about the monetization concepts from advertising to investor valuations. The problem is, these forces are not conducive to giving people what they really want. That's a major strategic error but the fatal flaw is the advertising model itself.

    You tell me Ryan, because you ought to be in great position to see this, but I always say that online ads don't work- people don't like them, so it's a huge waste of time and money. Remember Netscape as one of the first companies to try to monetize off the web and which was subsequently acquired by AOL.

    From Wikipedia: Netscape also pioneered the development of "push technology," which effectively allowed web sites to send regular updates of information (weather, stock updates, package tracking, etc.) directly to a user's desktop (aka "webtop"); Netscape's implementation of this was named Netcaster.[61] Unfortunately, businesses quickly recognized the use of push technology to deliver ads to users, and annoyed users turned off the feature, so Netcaster was short-lived.

    It didn't work but they kept trying. Almost everything Andreessen has touched since then has all been oriented on this idea that traditional media advertising is this huge industry, and web based companies that offer "digital" media can make a killing. Only problem is it still doesn't work, so they keep coming up with new selling points like "big data" suggesting that "it will work this time". No doubt, companies are eating it up, so there is money to be made, but that doesn't mean any of it is sustainable.

    Remember, Facebook has had ads for years, but nobody (end-users) don't care. FB also used to have RSS, and it was clear when they dropped it was directly related to their monetization priorities. Going public only makes the deficiency of the ad model more evident, and obviously they are scrambling to create the impression they have something that will make it work.

    I used a social networking platform for years until recently, which was acquired by Glam Media. Arora is from the Apple school of proprietary closed loops, lives the mantra "content is king", and thinks targeted ads through smarter engines is the way to go. Honestly, it's not that ads were missing their intended audiences as much as the fact they simply don't work- people don't like them. So they completely redid my platform, and you know what- the built-in RSS feature was discontinued. When everyone gasped at that, they said they had no intention for it, and if they did bring it back would be at the bottom of their priority list. It's amazing because as end-users, the feature was a top priority. Go figure.

    You know, there is an alternative model to advertising that is based on giving people what they want. I bet the companies that are having the most success on the web use it to develop "superior market intimacy"... in other words using the web to connect their brands to consumers through relationship building and especially producing online experiences that people actually want. Ad companies talk using the same ideas but it's superficial. The only people that profit from ads are ad agencies, or as we see social networking companies that sell ad solutions. How is that sustainable if people can't stand ads, advertising businesses don't increase profitability, and platform companies keep messing with our preferred online experience? It's not. However, that means there is a huge opportunity for competitor companies to come in and do it right across the board, and I think that will literally be in favor of open source by definition.

    Best, Anthony