Fenced Commons or Walled Gardens?

    May 11, 2007

I’ve been giving a lot of thought to my friend Dan York’s May 2 post asserting that the Web is fragmenting into a xxxx of walled gardens.

Dan’s obviously given this a lot of thought himself. Recalling the walled gardens of online services like CompuServe, Dan sees currently popular services like Facebook and LInkedIn as a return to the likes of these services that silo’d its participants within its boundaries. Email symbolized the walled gardens: CompuServe members could only email other CompuServe members; someone with MCI Mail could only send a message to someone else using the same service.

But a funny thing happened along the garden path… the walls started to slowly break down.  UUCP started interconnecting UNIX systems.  FidoNet started linking together BBS systems.  X.400 came out and had corporate interest.  And then along came SMTP, which ultimately became the “one email protocol to rule them all” (paralleling the emergence of TCP/IP and the “Internet” as the dominant network in the midst of all the network walled gardens). 

One current trend finds us using other channels than email for messaging. Users of these services—Skype, Jabber, AIM and the like—can only engage with others using the same services. Messaging is also occurring on the message boards of individuals with profiles on social networking services, which are often (but not always) limited to people who have accounts and are able to log in to those services. Each of these, Dan says, is “a messaging world unto itself…We’ve gone from the closed communities of email services to the complete openness of Internet e-mail and now seem to be returning back to those gated communities.”

I have expressed my own concerns about the explosion of social networking sites. Like Dan, I wonder how many of these networks one person can possibly participate in meaningfully. One person could belong to a network for his car, his profession, his hobby, his medical condition, his favorite singer, his favorite genre of books, his favorite baseball team/football team/basketball team, his religion, his field of study…how much time could he devote to any one of these? And if the answer is, “Not much,” how vibrant a member of any one community can he be?

Still, I’m not as concerned by this as Dan is.

Dan’s point about one open email account as a source of communication versus several discrete, isolated services is a valid one. But despite the fact that email is open, it is also hugely ineffective, one reason it has been dismissed by the younger generation in favor of text messaging, instant messaging, and social networks. (I interviewed by daughter on just this topic last year for my podcast; you can hear that segment here:






Even for those of us who do continue to use email (mainly those of us born before 1985), it has never been our exclusive online communication channel. Email is primarily good for one-to-one communication. Yes, listservs have been used for group conversation, but only because the alternatives didn’t exist, weren’t effective, or were too hard for the average person to use (e.g., Usenet, particularly back in the days when you needed either to learn the command prompt interface or install and learn dedicated software).

Message boards (also known as forums, discussion groups, newsgroups, etc.) have existed on the Web since its beginning. I don’t use email to solicit a solution to a technical problem with, say, my Feedburner account. I use the Feedburner Forums. In order to do that, I have to log in. Does that put me in a walled garden? To an extent, yes (although I can get notifications in my SMTP email that someone has answered my question in the forum). Do I care? Not a whit. Does it overwhelm me or limit my overall online experience? Nope.

The message boards/forums/discussion groups are, in fact, closer to walled gardens than MySpace, FaceBook, and LinkedIn, which are more like fenced-in commons. On MySpace, for example, I can view profiles without logging in; I need to sign in only to communicate. With CompuServe, I had to log in before I could do or see anything at all. And, as Dan notes, I can get email updates and RSS feeds to notify me when I’ve received something from within the community.

I well remember the days of CompuServe’s Public Relations & Marketing Forum (PRSIG), which remains the best online community of communicators that ever existed (largely because it was the only such community available at the time; with the introduction of the web, the community fragmented and PRSIG dried up). I participated when I had the time and cannot imagine what it would have done to my productivity if every message from every PRSIG section had come to my email inbox. I liked isolating my PRSIG conversations to the times it was convenient for me to participate.

I recently joined MyRagan, which looks like it might turn into the next truly valuable community of communicators…and again, I will drop in when I have time. I don’t want those messages hitting my in-box. (I’m already a little weary of email notifications of all the other MyRagan users who want to be my friend. Can’t I just see those when I log in?)

Even my blog is a fenced-in commons. There is communication, messaging, and conversation taking place between these posts and your comments, but they don’t come to my inbox. I have to visit the blog to see them (unless I opt in to receive notifications of new comments by email).

I don’t expect to be overwhelmed by the number of communities. I will not join a social network for my favorite band, my car, my faith, my medical condition, my favorite baseball team, or my favorite genre of books. I will join only the networks that address the issues about which I’m passionate. I’m passionate about communications, so I have joined MyRagan in hopes that it can become the next CompuServe PRSIG. I joined LinkedIn to tap into the six degrees model to serve my own business needs. And as long as these networks produce the kind of results I want, I’ll be active in them. But how is that different from being active on a message board 10 years ago?

Frankly, it’s no different at all. Email serves one function, community-oriented tools fulfill another. It has always been thus. Indeed, some integration needs to happen; for years, I used Trillian, a piece of software that let you connect to multiple instant messaging services. It would have been a lot easier if AIM had simply let me send a messge to someone with a Yahoo! Messenger account. In general, though, things seem to be working pretty well—for me at least—with the scope of services ranging from wide-open to fenced to walled-in, each fulfilling specific needs.

Isn’t that what the Net is all about?