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« Technorati's WTF | Main | Second Life: A response to Henry Jenkins »

February 6, 2007

about those walled gardens

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Posted by danah boyd

In the tech circles in which i run, the term “walled gardens” evokes a scrunching of the face if not outright spitting. I shouldn’t be surprised by this because these are the same folks who preach the transparent society as the panacea. But i couldn’t help myself from thinking that this immediate revulsion is obfuscating the issue… so i thought i’d muse a bit on walled gardens.

Walled gardens are inevitably built out of corporate greed - a company wants to lock in your data so that you can’t move between services and leave them in the dust. They make money off of your eyeballs. They make money off of your data. (In return, they often provide you with “free” services.) You put blood, sweat, and tears - or at least a little bit of time - into providing them with valuable data and you can’t get it out when you decide you’ve had enough. If this were the full story, of course walled gardens look foul to the core.

The term “walled garden” implies that there is something beautiful being surrounded by walls. The underlying assumption is that walls are inherently bad. Yet, walls have certain value. For example, i’m very appreciative of walls when i’m having sex. I like to keep my intimate acts intimate and part of that has to do with the construction of barriers that prevent others from accessing me visually and audibly. I’m not so thrilled about tearing down all of the walls in meatspace. Walls are what allow us to construct a notion of “private” and, even more importantly, contextualized publics. Walls help contain the social norms so that you know how to act properly within their confines, whether you’re at a pub or in a classroom.

One of the challenges online is that there really aren’t walls. What walls did exist came tumbling down with the introduction of search. Woosh - one quick query and the walls that separated comp.lang.perl from alt.sex.bondage came crashing down. Before search (a.k.a. Deja), there were pseudo digital walls. Sure, Usenet was public but you had to know where the door was to enter the conversation. Furthermore, you had to care to enter. There are lots of public and commercial places i pass by every day that i don’t bother entering. But, “for the good of all humankind”, search came to pave the roads and Arthur Dent couldn’t stop the digital bulldozer.

We’re living with the complications of no walls online. Determining context is really really hard. Is your boss really addressing you when he puts his pic up on Match.com? Does your daughter take your presence into consideration when she crafts her MySpace? No doubt it’s public, but it’s not like any public that we’re used to in meatspace.

For a long time, one of the accidental blessings of walled gardens was that they kept out search bots as part of their selfish data retention plan. This meant that there were no traces left behind of people’s participation in walled gardens when they opted out - no caches of previous profiles, no records of a once-embarassing profile. Much to my chagrin, many of the largest social network sites (MySpace, LinkedIn, Friendster, etc.) have begun welcoming the bots. This makes me wonder… are they really walled gardens any longer? It sounds more like chain linked fences to me. Or maybe a fishbowl with a little plastic castle.

What does it mean when the supposed walled gardens begin allowing external sites to cache their content?

[tangent] And what on earth does it mean that MySpace blocks the Internet Archive in its robots.txt but allows anyone else? It’s like they half-realize that posterity might be problematic for profiles, but fail to realize that caches of the major search engines are just as freaky. Of course, to top it off, their terms say that you may not use scripts on the site - isn’t a bot a script? The terms also say that participating in MySpace does not give them a license to distribute your content outside of MySpace - isn’t a Google cache of your profile exactly that? [end tangent]

Can we really call these sites walled gardens if the walls are see-through? I mean, if a search bot can grab your content for cache, what’s really stopping you from doing so? Most tech folks would say that they are walled gardens because there are no tools to support easy export. Given that thousands of sites have popped up to provide codes for you to turn your MySpace profile into a dizzy display of animated daisies with rainbow hearts fluttering from the top (while inserting phishing scripts), why wouldn’t there be copy/pastable code to let you export/save/transfer your content? Perhaps people don’t actually want to do this. Perhaps the obsessive personal ownership of one’s content is nothing more than a fantasy of the techno-elite (and the businessmen who haven’t yet managed to lock you in to their brainchild). I mean, if you’re producing content into a context, do you really want to transfer it wholesale? I certainly don’t want my MySpace profile displayed on LinkedIn (even if there are no nude photos there).

For all of this rambling, perhaps i should just summarize into three points:
  • If walls have value in meatspace, why are they inherently bad in mediated environments? I would argue that walls provide context and allow us to have some control over the distribution of our expressions. Walls should be appreciated, even if they are near impossible to construct.
  • If robots can run around grabbing the content of supposed walled gardens, are they really walled? It seems to me that the tizzy around walled gardens fails to recognize that those most interested in caching the data (::cough:: Google) can do precisely that. And those most interested does not seem to include the content producers.
  • If the walls come crashing down, what are we actually losing? Walls provide context, context is critical for individuals to properly express themselves in a socially appropriate way. I fear that our loss of walls is resulting in a very confused public space with far more visibility than anyone can actually handle.

Basically, i don’t think that walled gardens are all that bad. I think that they actually provide a certain level of protection for those toiling in the mud. The problem is that i think that we’ve torn down the walls of the supposed walled gardens and replaced them with chain links or glass. Maybe even one-way glass. And i’m not sure that this is such a good thing. ::sigh::

So, what am i missing? What don’t i understand about walled gardens?

(Conversation at Apophenia)

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