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?
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.
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.
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]