The world wide web is an open platform where anybody can create a page using the standard hypertext markup language and users are free to move across locations on the web and visit any other site without restrictions. Openness and equality, which guided the early web, was lost in its later years to walled gardens which eventually fell. Now openness is being sacrificed again, not to the extent of the early walled gardens but to their successors, the social networks who have erected their own walls directing users to see only selected and ranked content.
The White Picket Fence
Walled gardens emerged in the early 1990s as an easy way for a World Wide Web (W3) illiterate population to began to access internet content. When the web launched twenty years ago average consumers needed a gateway to access the internet. In 2006 W3 inventor Tim Berners-Lee wrote on CNN.com that in 1995 there were 18,000 websites which exploded to 50 million in May 2004. Berners-Lee’s article relied on data from Netcraft, whose research estimates that there are 464 million websites in August, 2011.
Typical characteristics of walled gardens include:
- registration of credentials with a real name, a username, or both
- a login screen using decided upon credentials
- content that is accessible only to users who present acceptable credentials
Early walled gardens like America Online (AOL) existed to provide users with a means of communicating over the internet (email, chat rooms, bulletin boards, and instant message) and to provide content to its users. Due to the lack of webpages on the early web, walled gardens operated on a fee for service model, meaning users would pay and in return received news, information about friends and family, as well as the ability to easily search the web within the garden.
Eventually the walls fell and the web opened up, although users had long abandoned the service which lost 86% of its users since 2003 according to a February, 2011 article in The New York Times. Users left AOL for an open, generative web dominated by search giant Google which offered an email service for free as did Microsoft (Hotmail) and Yahoo.
On the post-wall web no barriers existed between a private webpage, a government, service, and the many free email clients. While users still must submit credentials to send and receive emails, only private content existed inside that page. Logging in to Google services does not give users more “Google approved” content than if a user were to visit the same services without submitting credentials, however they are more “personalized” when using a personal account.
Despite an embrace of the open web which grew from 50 million websites from 1991 to 2004 and to 414 million sites in the years since, there is a resurgence of walls in a new form. Unlike AOL these are not high, solid walls which prevent users from leaving by offering everything that a web user could want inside the service. New walled gardens lack walls, they are “white picket fence gardens” and are places where users go because they want to, not because they have to.
People want to be behind the white picket fence, it represents an American ideal of a peaceful life. Social websites are trying to recreate that ideal home life in an online space. Companies including Facebook are attempting to create an ideal world for members who know about the wider W3, however choose to stay because their friends are inside the fence.