Wednesday, March 2, 2016

We're back in the walled gardens of the Internet: A good thing or a bad thing?

“User experience always wins", says Dries Buytaert, lead developer of Drupal and champion of free, open source software.

In a talk given earlier this week at the Berkman Center for Internet and Society in Cambridge, Massachusetts, Dries rightly pointed out that people just do what’s more convenient without thinking too much about the trade-offs. This is how, for example, Facebook has become the de facto front page of the Internet for well over a billion people. This is the walled garden, or closed system of the Internet, in contrast to the wide open web, decentralized, and not owned by anyone in particular.

Dries characterizes the state of this corner of the  Internet as "the big reverse of the web", or the move from the radically open and uncensored Internet to one in which private corporations hold a kind and level of power perhaps only rivalled by governmental bodies.

One way to think about this big reverse is as follows: people used to go to multiple sites to get what they wanted  -- e.g. news from The New York Times or the Guardian, entertainment from online sites or the digital properties of broadcasters. The point is that it was the consumer actively seeking out and going to the content, as opposed to our actions and algorithms based upon them determining the information that gets pushed to us. The flip here is the content coming to the consumer, and it's  one of the defining characteristics of communications in the digital era.

And because we're generally not paying for the news, information, and entertainment we consume online, along with it advertising also comes to us, services come to us, and in the case of Facebook Messenger, now a separate app on our phones that pushes everything to the top layer of the interface, 1-to-1 interactions and transactions are about to come to us.

But are walled gardens, these privately owned portals to the Internet such as Facebook -- all bad? No they're not. Though I recall it being referred to as 'the trailer park of the Internet' I think we still have to credit AOL with getting mainstream America online in the 90s. The same can be said of services provided by Google in the 2000s and Facebook in the 2010s.

So what’s the problem? In Dries Buytaert's opinion it's the scale...of billions of users. And what’s the problem with that? Well, there are these pesky problems, such as Google technically being able to shape the results of the U.S. election by tweaking algorithms, and Facebook having the ability to introduce bias to the newsfeed.

And how did this all happen? The easy answer is that it's possible because of the storehouses of data built on our initial exuberance about everything being 'free' online. Could free be, as a friend of mine says, the most expensive price of all? Or are the tradeoffs -- the things we receive in return for the use of our data, the manifestation of the 'price' we're willing to pay for the services we get to use? 

Slide from Dries Buytaert's presentation illustrating who knows what
Click to enlarge


It's not a simple binary, i.e. that data collection a bad thing and no data collection is a good thing, because data collection becomes part of a filtering out of what could be thought of as the excessive noise of the firehose of the Internet. The processing of our data trails by 1st parties in some cases and 3rd parties in others means that we have move relevant information pushed to us, at the right time, so that, for example, a person who doesn't have kids doesn't get diaper ads, a person with diabetes doesn't get ice cream coupons, etc. The systems are not perfect, as most of us have experienced. I know Ivy league graduates who have received ads for community colleges and I myself have received targeted ads for products aimed at the teen market. (But maybe I shouldn't flatter myself, as I'm old enough to have teenagers, yet I don't; perhaps the ads were meant for the parent of a teenager to influence their kid's purchase?)

Why do we play along in this return to the walled garden Internet? The one that most of us thought we left behind with CompuServe, AOL, and Yahoo? Because the convenience, utility, and entertainment we receive are greater than the expenditure. And when I refer to the cost remember we’re not paying with dollars; therefore we’re paying with our data. And like any transaction it’s optional. But you know what they say...You can check out any time you like…

More on Dries Buytaert's proposed solutions to the walled garden vs. the open web can be found here.