Moving beyond the walled-garden mindset

Online social networks | Everywhere and nowhere is a recent article from The Economist. It prompted me to think on the elephant in the room for social network sites: their business model involves trapping people within their walls, whilst social interaction has a nasty habit of occurring wherever and whenever it can. This is a source of tension for social networking sites; they are trying to keep their users contained, whilst the users wish to break out.

Why form walled-gardens to begin with?

That social networks wish to trap stems from people becoming used to getting services for “free” on the internet. This connection sounds obtuse, but a simple sequence leads to it. Sites wish to show adverts, this is most easy if your audience is captive to your site. Showing adverts to fund a site is necessary because people are unwilling to pay directly for services on the internet, so indirect money making methods are required. People are unwilling to pay because they have become accustomed to getting services “free”. And so a self-perpetuating vicious circle is formed.

This leads to the conclusion the tension is of our own creation: people want to break free of walled-gardens, but their unwillingness to pay directly means they cannot.

This problem is endemic to the internet as a whole, not just social networking sites. The ability to link between sites is the greatest strength of the internet, yet ensnaring people within your site is the accepted way to make money. This contradiction causes tension and unbalance within the system; experience tells us systems strain to return to equilibrium. Social networking sites are providing the most obvious current example of this.

An (obvious) way out of this mess

So Facebook cannot afford to provide access to one’s data from just anywhere whilst it feels bound to offer its service for “free”. Unfortunately, if Facebook were to provide full API access to their site, but only for users who paid for the service, there would be an outcry: “you are holding our data to ransom!”

To counter this, it would be best for Facebook to be completely honest with its users. Facebook should say their free service offers the walled-garden experience as your payment is through the viewing (and clicking on) adverts. If you are willing to pay directly, the need for advertisements to be shown is negated, so data Facebook holds is accessible to outside parties. Facebook is still holding your data to ransom, but by being clear about why they are doing it, they are providing you the opportunity to make a reasoned choice.

If they were to follow this model, Facebook has the chance to become a custodian of your data. You pay them directly for a service, rather than having the illusion of a free lunch. If a large service like Facebook came clean, it would allow smaller services more leeway as to how they make money. Sites providing useful services deserve to be paid for them. Users deserve a real choice between exploitation of private data for implicit payment versus an explicit payment which preserves privacy.

Offering a way of paying directly provides a way out of a contradiction Facebook, and the internet as a whole, has got itself into. Facebook have the right data to offer a truly valuable service; why can’t we pay for it? When will we realise this nonsensical, contradictory state is unsustainable?

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