FB – It can’t be private and not a walled garden

(Warning – this post contains some dangerously stretched garden metaphors).

There have been lots of mutterings about Facebook being a walled garden recently, for instance danah boyd ponders

I am utterly confused by the ways in which the tech industry fetishizes Facebook. There’s no doubt that Facebook’s F8 launch was *brilliant*. Offering APIs and the possibility of monetization is a Web 2.0 developer’s wet dream. (Never mind that I don’t know of anyone really making money off of Facebook aside from the Poker App guy.) But what I don’t understand is why so much of the tech crowd who lament Walled Gardens worship Facebook. What am I missing here? Why is the tech crowd so entranced with Facebook?

In July Jason Kottke compared FB with AOL and complained that

"Google doesn’t index any user-created information on Facebook. AFAIK, user data is available through the platform but that hardly makes it open…all of the significant information and, more importantly, interaction still happens in private. Compare this with MySpace or Flickr or YouTube. Much of the information generated on these sites is publicly available. The pages are indexed by search engines."

Now of course FB has announced that it will make some data available for Google to search. So everyone’s happy now, right? Wrong. Now FB are trampling over privacy. For instance Om Malik fears that

this is yet another small step in the overall erosion of personal privacy, thanks to the ever growing popularity of the social networks. I don’t like the direction where all this is headed. …We are slowly leaving digital litter all over the web, and some day it is going to cause problems.

And danah boyd continues to be puzzled when she says

"Still, I can’t wait to see how a generation of college students feel about their FB profile appearing at the top of Google searches. That outta make them feel good about socializing there. Not."


So firstly, FB is bad for being a walled garden, then pilloried for opening up a bit. Let’s get some of the privacy concerns in perspective – it will reveal your name, and a thumbnail. Not your status, your photos, your applications, etc. That doesn’t strike me as a massive invasion of privacy, you could pretty much find that out anywhere else (you can see mine – I’ve found my way to the privacy settings, but figured this is okay). And if I really was worried about someone tracking me down, I probably wouldn’t be on FB (or MySpace, or FriendsReunited, or LinkedIn). I think FB will have some tricky privacy issues to deal with, but it already has quite fine-grained controls, the trick will be in getting people to use them. As I’ve said before I think multiple profiles from the same core identity will be the way to go.

As for the initial walled garden accusation, that is true to an extent, although with the opening up of its API it is a long way from the AOL days. But it is a walled garden in that the data goes in and doesn’t come out. That is partly a privacy thing, but mainly a building stickability policy. I am in general in favour of open systems, and syndication over stickability, but I think we’re all prepared to accept one or two sites in our lives that add enough value to sacrifice this for.

So, at the moment FB is a walled garden, but it’s a nice walled garden, that’s why we go there. The rest of the time we like playing down the park with our mates, where we can meet new people, share ice-creams, play football, etc. But occassionally we get fed up with the dog poo that litters the place and retreat to our walled garden with just our invited friends for a nice picnic.

For those puzzled by FB’s success they should probably look at what machine they are using to write these calls for openness on – it’ll usually be a Mac. Ask themselves why they use such a closed system machine, and the answer will probably be ‘because it’s good.’

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