Over the weekend, I downloaded Apple’s attractive new classical music app. This involved also signing up for Apple Music, taking a step further into Apple’s enormous walled garden.
A digital walled garden is a closed ecosystem, in which technology, information and user data is controlled by a gatekeeper company.
The first time I heard the term applied to the internet was in the 1990s, in sniffily dismissive discussions of AOL (America Online), the huge US internet provider that blanketed the country in endless free CD-ROMs of its installation software.
AOL spent more than $300 million (€271 million) on those inescapable CDs. In 2010, AOL’s former chief marketing officer Jan Brandt noted: “At one point, 50 per cent of the CDs produced worldwide had an AOL logo on it. We were logging in new subscribers at the rate of one every six seconds.”
In a decade, the company went from 200,000 subscribers to 25 million, kept within a tailored, simplified, content-filled, paywalled AOL internet world. If you subscribed – and half of American homes did – you got an AOL email address, surfed the web through an AOL browser, played games, learned, researched, took courses, talked to friends and joined discussion groups all within AOL. Children went online within the parameters of AOL safety settings.
Many of us scoffed at this filtered, controlled universe. How much hand-holding did people need? Most of the internet was built on open protocols that didn’t lock people in. Once internet users began to see the richness of the web outside of AOL’s garden walls, surely they’d want to exit and explore on their own?
For a variety of reasons, AOL’s star began to dim in the noughties and I am sure I was not alone in thinking it was because people had had enough of those walls, and a more open internet had triumphed. We were proven right! Except we weren’t.
Since then, online walled gardens have proliferated. You’ll likely have encountered several of them within minutes of going online. We just notice them less, probably because in most cases we don’t pay upfront for them through an obvious AOL-ish access charge, and because walled gardens now take on such varied shapes.
One form is the technology by which we go online – Apple being the prime example. People with Apple devices also have Apple apps and software and services, which work together very conveniently and look nice and quietly conspire to pull you further in (Apple Music Classical!). The deeper you journey into the garden, the more invested you become and the more difficult to leave. Still, it’s very pretty and compelling.
Social media platforms of various types – many which rose as AOL fell – constitute another set of gardens. They may seem open, because you don’t pay to join (though some offer paid premium services) and often anyone can view, though not post content, without joining. Your personal data is the valuable coin by which you obtain these ostensibly “free” services.
Online advertising is also dominated by a handful of walled gardens. Google, Meta and Amazon Ads alone have controlled more than 50 per cent of the digital advertising market for years.
Walled garden platforms would be foolish to ignore the threat of a user shift towards more open options
According to Statista, the combined walled gardens of Amazon, Facebook/Meta, LinkedIn, Pinterest, Snapchat, Spotify, and TikTok together accounted for 77 per cent of the global digital ad market in 2022.
That share is predicted to rise to 82 per cent by 2026. We so readily settle into these walled garden sites, then have our data surveilled as we post, message, video, purchase, search, react.
Now, thanks to Elon Musk’s purchase of Twitter, as well as incoming greater regulation of platforms and advertising, and growing concerns about data privacy, walled gardens, and the alternative of a more open internet, are hot technology talking points once again.
Musk drove many Twitter users to explore the decentralised social network alternative Mastodon, which is part of a large “Fediverse” of social alternatives built around an open standard, ActivityPub.
This standard enables Fediverse services, which include numerous alternatives to the walled garden platforms, to link and interoperate. People can view and use other federated ActivityPub-based social platforms through whichever one they happen to have an account on, be it Mastodon or something else. It’s as if you could view or make Twitter posts from Facebook.
As the Verge notes enthusiastically, Medium, Tumblr, Flipboard and Mozilla are all working with ActivityPub, and ubiquitous WordPress now has an ActivityPub plug-in.
Walled garden platforms would be foolish to ignore the threat of a user shift towards more open options (see: AOL). Yet, walled gardens, if already full of your friends and things you like, have definite attractions.
Shall we stay or shall we go? I’d like to think we’ve reached a moment of reconsideration where people will opt for an open web model with more freedom, less surveillance and greater user control. But user inertia creates its own walls, and may keep people inside even such blasted, weed-choked gardens as Twitter and Facebook.