Commentary

Fears of a Facebook overlord are highly overrated

By gschultz on May. 13, 2015 / 2:59 PM UTC (14:59 GMT)

Here we go again: fears of a “walled garden” – a closed ecosystem designed not to let users venture outside – are back. Facebook finally unveiled it’s long anticipate feature for news outlets to publish their articles inside of Facebook – Instant Articles. Talks of the “walled garden” begin to rise. They have nothing to fear, history is on their side.

The “walled garden” concept started during the AOL dial-up – often called the portal – where everything was inside AOL and users didn’t have to leave. If a user wanted to book airline tickets, they used the AOL keyword “travel”, Expedia wasn’t around in the 90s. If you wanted to be on the Internet in the 90s, you had to have an AOL keyword. Former MTV VJ Adam Curry has a great story about MTV letting him own mtv.com because “we have the AOL keyword.”

AOL’s dominance fell in the 2000’s when broadband Internet took off; thus killing the AOL “walled garden” and ushering in the “open” era.

Now some are claiming we’re slowly going back to the “walled garden”, especially with Facebook launching Instant Articles. We’re already in the era of “walled garden(s)” – multiple gardens – and that’s the difference between the AOL era and today. What’s is popular today is not popular tomorrow.

Since the AOL era, there has been a rush to duplicate the “walled garden” experience but they never achieve popularity. ISPs still use the “walled garden”, usually in the form of changing the start page of their browser when the user runs the modem installation software. They never gained popularity because people immediately change the startpage after the installation is complete and the only people that use them – technically-challenged older people – don’t know the default homepage can be changed on their browser to something else.

Then came the mobile “wall garden” era with Verizon and AT&T. Those never caught on. Then came the app “garden” era with Flipbook and Pulse, now they’re leaving in droves.

Now it’s the social “garden” era with Facebook. Twitter has an “open” garden – users go outside Twitter when they click on a link.

But Facebook is doing something different to appease those upset of the “walled garden” movement, sharing ad revenue. Publishers receive 100% of ad banner revenue if they manage the ads, 70% if publishers use Facebook’s ad network. It should satisfy content publishers but they will still be worry about diving into publishing for Facebook.

Facebook will tell you the reason they’re doing is for 10x time improvement when an article loads in Facebook versus clicking on a link to go outside. The real reason is two-fold: Facebook doesn’t wants you to leave Facebook and other social networks are starting one as well (I.E. SnapChat).

What’s going to happen is Facebook or SnapChat will become the defacto “walled garden” experience. Then something else will take it’s place. And then something else will take that experience. Rinse. Repeat.

No matter what happens, we’re still in the same position as we are today; one “walled garden” rises, another falls. And the cycle continues to repeat itself.

gschultz