My name is danah boyd and I'm a Principal Researcher at Microsoft Research, a Research Assistant Professor in Media, Culture, and Communication at New York University, and a Fellow at Harvard's Berkman Center for Internet and Society. Buzzwords in my world include: privacy, context, youth culture, social media, big data. I use this blog to express random thoughts about whatever I'm thinking.

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about those walled gardens

In the tech circles in which i run, the term “walled gardens” evokes a scrunching of the face if not outright spitting. I shouldn’t be surprised by this because these are the same folks who preach the transparent society as the panacea. But i couldn’t help myself from thinking that this immediate revulsion is obfuscating the issue… so i thought i’d muse a bit on walled gardens.

Walled gardens are inevitably built out of corporate greed – a company wants to lock in your data so that you can’t move between services and leave them in the dust. They make money off of your eyeballs. They make money off of your data. (In return, they often provide you with “free” services.) You put blood, sweat, and tears – or at least a little bit of time – into providing them with valuable data and you can’t get it out when you decide you’ve had enough. If this were the full story, _of course_ walled gardens look foul to the core.

The term “walled garden” implies that there is something beautiful being surrounded by walls. The underlying assumption is that walls are inherently bad. Yet, walls have certain value. For example, i’m very appreciative of walls when i’m having sex. I like to keep my intimate acts intimate and part of that has to do with the construction of barriers that prevent others from accessing me visually and audibly. I’m not so thrilled about tearing down all of the walls in meatspace. Walls are what allow us to construct a notion of “private” and, even more importantly, contextualized publics. Walls help contain the social norms so that you know how to act properly within their confines, whether you’re at a pub or in a classroom.

One of the challenges online is that there really aren’t walls. What walls did exist came tumbling down with the introduction of search. Woosh – one quick query and the walls that separated comp.lang.perl from alt.sex.bondage came crashing down. Before search (a.k.a. Deja), there were pseudo digital walls. Sure, Usenet was public but you had to know where the door was to enter the conversation. Furthermore, you had to care to enter. There are lots of public and commercial places i pass by every day that i don’t bother entering. But, “for the good of all humankind”, search came to pave the roads and Arthur Dent couldn’t stop the digital bulldozer.

We’re living with the complications of no walls online. Determining context is really really hard. Is your boss really addressing you when he puts his pic up on Match.com? Does your daughter take your presence into consideration when she crafts her MySpace? No doubt it’s public, but it’s not like any public that we’re used to in meatspace.

For a long time, one of the accidental blessings of walled gardens was that they kept out search bots as part of their selfish data retention plan. This meant that there were no traces left behind of people’s participation in walled gardens when they opted out – no caches of previous profiles, no records of a once-embarassing profile. Much to my chagrin, many of the largest social network sites (MySpace, LinkedIn, Friendster, etc.) have begun welcoming the bots. This makes me wonder… are they really walled gardens any longer? It sounds more like chain linked fences to me. Or maybe a fishbowl with a little plastic castle.

What does it mean when the supposed walled gardens begin allowing external sites to cache their content?

[tangent] And what on earth does it mean that MySpace blocks the Internet Archive in its robots.txt but allows anyone else? It’s like they half-realize that posterity might be problematic for profiles, but fail to realize that caches of the major search engines are just as freaky. Of course, to top it off, their terms say that you may not use scripts on the site – isn’t a bot a script? The terms also say that participating in MySpace does not give them a license to distribute your content outside of MySpace – isn’t a Google cache of your profile exactly that? [end tangent]

Can we really call these sites walled gardens if the walls are see-through? I mean, if a search bot can grab your content for cache, what’s really stopping you from doing so? Most tech folks would say that they are walled gardens because there are no tools to support easy export. Given that thousands of sites have popped up to provide codes for you to turn your MySpace profile into a dizzy display of animated daisies with rainbow hearts fluttering from the top (while inserting phishing scripts), why wouldn’t there be copy/pastable code to let you export/save/transfer your content? Perhaps people don’t actually want to do this. Perhaps the obsessive personal ownership of one’s content is nothing more than a fantasy of the techno-elite (and the businessmen who haven’t yet managed to lock you in to their brainchild). I mean, if you’re producing content into a context, do you really want to transfer it wholesale? I certainly don’t want my MySpace profile displayed on LinkedIn (even if there are no nude photos there).

For all of this rambling, perhaps i should just summarize into three points:

  • If walls have value in meatspace, why are they inherently bad in mediated environments? I would argue that walls provide context and allow us to have some control over the distribution of our expressions. Walls should be appreciated, even if they are near impossible to construct.
  • If robots can run around grabbing the content of supposed walled gardens, are they really walled? It seems to me that the tizzy around walled gardens fails to recognize that those most interested in caching the data (::cough:: Google) can do precisely that. And those most interested does not seem to include the content producers.
  • If the walls come crashing down, what are we actually losing? Walls provide context, context is critical for individuals to properly express themselves in a socially appropriate way. I fear that our loss of walls is resulting in a very confused public space with far more visibility than anyone can actually handle.

Basically, i don’t think that walled gardens are all that bad. I think that they actually provide a certain level of protection for those toiling in the mud. The problem is that i think that we’ve torn down the walls of the supposed walled gardens and replaced them with chain links or glass. Maybe even one-way glass. And i’m not sure that this is such a good thing. ::sigh::

So, what am i missing? What don’t i understand about walled gardens?

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36 comments to about those walled gardens

  • James

    I always though walled gardens had to do with limiting what you were allowed to do and where you could go – eg mobile phones that can only access websites that pay money to your carrier (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Walled_garden_(media)

    So (to make a weak analogy), the walls that did exist were not around gardens, but around private clubs. You could move between them, and be a member of several, but outsiders couldn’t see what was going on unless they also joined. But search turned the walls transparent as you say.

    In response to this, clubs that can’t stand the scrutiny become invite-only and shun the search engines, eg fanvidders. They do this knowing the cost of losing search, although private forums have search within the private areas.

    So the trick is to somehow provide search results only to those in the club – LiveJournal is attempting to do this with its own search engine. Jon Udell also has some thoughts on this at http://blog.jonudell.net/2007/02/02/who-can-see-which-parts-of-my-published-surface-area/

  • Michael Chui

    danah asks, If walls have value in meatspace, why are they inherently bad in mediated environments?

    It’s not so much the walls themselves which are intrinsically of value, but as you point out, that they provide social context and security. In the case of software and especially online software, there are other ways to provide social context; thus the only reason to wall off a garden is security.

  • Great topic, Danah! I wish we could have you at our Identity Society launch event in London on Feb 19th (I’m sure you’re booked up from reading your previous posts), as this is just the kind of topic we should be focusing on.

    Back on the subject itself, (paraphrased from a recent blog post of mine):

    I was discussing “walled gardens” with my girlfriend Charla and a dramatherapist colleague of her’s over Sunday lunch the other week (as a way of discussing the fragmented state of the social web), and they both protested “but I love walled gardens!” In my experience also, people generally do like to feel contained�to have boundaries. A complete lack of boundaries, after all, is effectively anarchy.

    So maybe our real challenge is not so much to break down all the walls, but more to allow people to roam gardens walled by the social and informational boundaries of their own world rather than those of any given service they happen to be using? Then again, I would argue that a location metaphor for the web is rather misleading in the first place! Hum.

  • john

    It is simplistic to say in one part of your posting, “Walled gardens are inevitably built out of corporate greed,” while later to say “Basically, i don’t think that walled gardens are all that bad. I think that they actually provide a certain level of protection for those toiling in the mud.”

    The 2nd statement should give the lie to the first generalization. There are all kinds of walled gardens. Just for example, there are doubtless files you open in your word processor every day that you would prefer to have walled off from others. That wall defines the edges of the Apophenia/Zephoria garden.

    I would think that a scholar would hesitate before using words like “inevitably” . . . It’s cheap.

  • I think it might be worth looking a little more closely at the analogy. In meatspace, the walls of a garden create a microclimate. Things can be grown within those walls that could not be grown outside them, if only because ‘Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May’. The walls enable the garden.

    The walls also allow you to choose to control access more strictly than you could with, say, a park, but that’s more down to the way you set up the gates.

    Maybe a better term for the online things we’re calling ‘walled gardens’ is ‘gated community’.

  • I think your analysis is spot on (and I didn’t know that stuff about SNS’ attitude to robots) but (since you asked ;-) it does leave out one important thing. The walls to the gardens may be getting increasingly porous in reality but people’s perceptions lag behind. Many people feel as if what they write online in some of these spaces is behind walls when in fact it is not…

  • There is a very big difference between our putting walls around our own space, and other people putting walls there.

    When we build or buy (or rent) our own walls, we choose when they are open or closed – when the door is locked or unlocked, who we let in, whether the curtains are drawn or open, etc.

    That’s called a home.

    When other people control the walls, they choose whether or not to open them (which is why the invasion of search engines in Friendster comes as a rude surprise), whether the door is locked or unlocked (which is why having your personal data owned by Fox is discomfiting), etc. When other people control the walls, you can’t simply pack up your (digital) possessions and leave.

    That’s called a prison.

    Of course even these generalizations are misleading.

    Sometimes our own home is a trap. Sometimes we wall ourselves off from the rest of the world, keeping ourselves apart in ways that are not healthy. It’s like when the emergency services can’t gt through your front door to respond to 911. Or when we hide in the basement and pretend the tsunami outside is not real.

    And sometimes the prison is a sanctuary. When we cannot afford walls of our own, or when we are in danger of being pursued by predators, or we need a place for a large group of us to meet in private, then we want a place with high walls and guards around the perimeter.

    Walls – like most other things – are ethically neutral. Neither good nor bad.

    It’s what we do with them that matters, and what other people do with them to us. If the walls increase both our security and our freedom, then (all else being equal) they are good. If they reduce our security and freedom, they are not so good.

    From my perspective, the best wall is one with a door, and the best door is one with a key.

  • Does this come down to the projection of identity? Certainly, if people said “Walled Garden” to me before reading this, I’d associate it with being Walled by the service provider. But it seems your post turns this around, and starts to think about Walled Gardens in terms of the individual, the user. Perhaps this is a natural result of increasingly ubiquitous connectivity.

    Still, a service putting up walls is about the identity of the service – no to sex, no to gambling, or whatever. Perhaps this is the result of a market set-up – this identity defines the desired niche, and the target audience.

    But are users different to this? Contextualisation is an important point, I think – we like to know the rules in particular places so that we can filter out which places we use for certain activities. But we, as users, don’t choose a single identity for ourselves, and this is where your MySpace vs LinkedIn point comes in, I think. We like to be different people in different spaces. We like to have multiple identities, and we need walls to help us out in this.

    Perhaps the main wall is between provider and user, still – is there greater integration between users (e.g. aggregation of attributes) than there is merging between services? Or do people like Yahoo, Google, MS, etc in their acquirement of user-based services merely represent multi-identity corporates?

    It’s also interesting to compare the disintegration of on-line walls with the disintegration of off-line walls. Does increased surveillance breed greater need/desire for better search tools, or is it vice versa?

  • When I think of walled garden, I don’t think of MySpace. Also, the garden is not necessarily a nice garden. Two classic examples of walled gardens are the old AOL and Verizon VCAST.

    Remember AOL in the dial-up days? Also, remember the old Prodigy? These were real walled gardens. Sure, AOL eventually included a crappy web browser, and you could minimize AOL and run Netscape. That’s not the point. Walled gardens keep users in. They went out onto the real Internet for you and provided you information through the software application known as AOL. It is bad because it is a limitation on the freedom of the user. Also, no matter how well they tend the garden, it will never be as beautiful as the community garden that is the open web. That is why it no longer exists.

    Verizon VCAST is a walled garden that still exists because people do not have the power to leave. People are buying phones in the US which are capable of making calls on Skype, Bluetooth DUN, using any mp3 as a ringtone, downloading and installing games, videos and music for free from the web, and more. Instead of selling a phone that sails the open seas of the web, they wall you into a garden that is VCAST. Only power users are smart enough to find a way to climb over the walls, and it’s not always possible. There’s no reason my EV-DO phone shouldn’t be allowed to roam YouTube and send IMs the way a laptop does. Instead, they charge you money for every instant message you send and video you watch, filtered through their terrible service.

    MySpace isn’t a walled garden. Users aren’t trapped inside of MySpace unable to access other social networking opportunities. Walled gardens exist to keep users from seeing and freely wandering the natural wilderness that is ever more beautiful than what anyone can grow intentionally.

  • Consumatopia

    I think Scott Rubin is on to something there. Danah seems to be focusing on the “wall” part of walled garden, whereas what annoys the techheads is probably the “garden” part.

    I was out on public lands in Colorado. During other seasons cattle are taken to these lands for grazing, and there were barbed wire fences strung out for this purpose. But without the cattle, land on both sides is public, and the fences just become a strange, pointless impediment that both humans and non-livestock animals can see through and, with minor inconvenience, cross.

    Maybe myspace is less of a walled garden than a fenced pasture.

  • Bertil

    Sorry to sound so much like a Mac fan, but aren’t some walled-garden about quality? Compatibility, good design, no unexpected errors… Such constraints make walls handy. My employer, and many ISPs and mobile ops use this pretext to cover both greed and lack of talent — but remember the original use of “wall garden” is for monastries, where temptation was kept away.

    Regarding the recent MySpace policy call: that is a shot in their own foot, and I believe it is in their own interest to embrace OpenID.

    I really like Stephen’s distinction between a home and a jail: a very clear illustration of why control is freedom.

    About caching: I think it is great time webmasters learn how to use those; I’m not aware that allowing caching will improve your ranking. For those in a hurry:

  • Graham brought up an interesting argument in that MySpace is not a walled garden. Yes, users are free to explore other social networking opportunities. However, when social forces act upon users’ choices, the result is a perceived limited choice. So, the tween who uses MySpace will only use MySpace because that’s where all their friends are at and it would take a huge mental/behavioral leap to go outside that in-place, social system.

    I think free will plays a big part in this. If you are a user who has no skills to build systems outside of what is already created, you’re trapped. You might have the allusion of choice (one can either have daises or tulips adorning their MySpace profile), but the reality is your free will is contained (aka Max Weber’s Iron Cage argument). If even cognizant of this fact, the user must decide whether or not the benefit of the social network is worth the loss of freedom.

    Finally, I can’t help think about the netizens of Second Life (SL), a virtual-reality community. When speaking/writing about the Self, walled gardens can also pertain to the on-line persona. This has been much discussed (the “anonymity” of the Web); however, with SL, it is brought to the visual level. The projection of the SL user’s Self can range from a close resemblance of their natural appearance to something completely alien. However, in each case, there is an intermediary. There is a wall erected out of bits and bytes. The user must negotiate whether or not to erect a thin screen or a fortified concrete wall. Yes, there is a disconnect between the Self and personal appearance in the Real World (RL), but I’d argue there are more possibilities in SL to create a deeper chasm between the Self and outward appearance. Which leads me to suggest that while certain aspect of online systems restrict, others expand. Yet, in most scenarios, you’re still in the cage.

  • valraven

    It depends on what is walled in. Walling in a platform, like mobile phones, is bad because it reduces creativity. Walling off applications built on platforms has benefits, as you mention. An issue comes when an application becomes a platform and people don’t want to notice the transition.

  • Michael – yes, you can get context from other cues but when the security isn’t present, the context collides all over the place. For example, when search allows you to see conversations outside of context, it doesn’t matter what context you had to produce your expressions – they aren’t present in the consumption of those expressions.

    John – i think that walled gardens *are* built from corporate greed, but the byproducts of this creation are not all that bad. In other words, i’m separating intention from experience.

    Stephen – are the walls that your favorite pub maintain prison walls? There are numerous institutions that we have no control over when they are opened or closed, locked or unlocked, curtains drawn or open, etc. but we enjoy entering them and relishing the types of privacy/publicity that they offer. They aren’t prison because we don’t have to enter, but when we do enter, we have to leave our beer glasses behind. Many of our traces are left behind as well – it is these tracings that give places “character.” I guess my other point is that i’m not convinced that what we call “walled gardens” lack doors. They just seem to lack people’s desire to actually use them.

    Bryan – i suspect we shouldn’t get into a discussion of free will… but the fact is that most people (not just teens) go to the places where their friends go. I certainly choose my pubs based on where my friends go. Sure, sometimes i try to coerce them to go to a place that i find interesting, but there’s a lot of collective action that is not necessarily about individual choice or desire. Sure, this is “containing,” but would i be happier if i just went about doing what _i_ wanted without considering where my friends were? Hell no. I don’t understand how you see the benefits of social network sites as being about a loss of freedom. From my POV, it’s about the freedom to hang out with your friends even when you’re trapped in your home (aka teen prison) by your parents.

  • Here’s something that seems to be missing from the conversation: As danah has defined them, corporations build walls online; users live inside them. “Walls” then help corporations to precisely and accurately represent context, and they are also our users’ first clue to interpreting context. So the ethics of walls in online communities seems pretty simple: don’t misrepresent your walls to your visitors.

    If you tell them they can tryst undisturbed with their lovers in the grotto and the grotto has one-way glass mirrors, that’s foul.

    If you tell them they can hang out with their friends behind closed doors, but not tell them their parents can watch a video of what they were doing whenever they want, that’s just wrong.

    In an online community, “walls” represent access to functions. Specifically, the mud zephoria mentioned us playing in earlier is CRUD. The problem with TOS and social network services generally seems to me to be that almost no one is telling us where all the walls are – who really has permission to create, read, update, and destroy profiles, relationship links, messages, notes, and all the other detritus of online hangouts and living rooms.

    We leave skeletons in our closets because only we have the keys. No one wants to have sex where they might be videotaped by someone else. No one wants to smoke up in a fishbowl. No one goes to a pub where the bartender makes and sells files on the customers.

    IMHO, Facebook is best at using implicit clues to delineate where the walls are and who has the keys, which is why I am most comfortable there. But no one is really telling us like it is when it comes to these automated and otherwise invisible garbage collectors who may or may not have access to our social spaces.

    Yes, people use context to determine socially appropriate behavior, but sometimes the context represented isn’t actually accurate or precise, and their behavior reflects the wrong context. That can create embarassment, awkwardness, and shame. All of which are the equivalent, it seems to me, of social prison.

    This is all very interesting, especially because these walls are more like social permissions and signs than walls and doors, only the social permissions are different online than in realspace. Our challenge as users is to help discover where these new walls are and help our communities see where they should be.

  • As usual Stephen Downes offers the clearest analogy to wit:- “From my perspective, the best wall is one with a door, and the best door is one with a key”

  • Consumatopia

    Not everything that has network effects, poor export capability, or mindshare sufficient to lock in its userbase is a walled garden.

    We can’t really call Microsoft Windows or Office a walled garden, can we?

    Wi-Fi games with Nintendo DS and Wii are probably some of the best examples of walled gardens. The cell phone walled gardens only benefit the corporations that lock the users in. The social networking walled gardens aren’t very well walled. But the Nintendo walled gardens are both fairly well walled and serve the purpose of protecting a much younger audience.

    One could imagine a world of Trusted Computing with Remote Attestation that actually constructs “real walls” actually allowing people to exchange information without the possibility of archiving it. That should piss off the tech circles…

    One thing about Second Life is that there is so very MUCH information exchanged in terms of models, textures, scripts, sounds, and text that it’s extremely difficult to archive. Abandoning text might actually make our communications far less archiveable and searchable.

  • Eric

    The link between corporations and walled gardens is much broader than just the tech companies or social network sites talked about here. Taking a deeper look at the state of corporate America (like a true American, my foreign knowledge is skewed)- Enron, HP, or even Apple’s recent bout with cooking options for a select number of employees provides more substantial cultural grounding as to why transparency is gaining momentum over traditional black-box business models. A quick dive into western politics might result in similar sentiments by the consuming/voting public.

    Ultimately, isn’t the market just responding to demand and that’s why this discussion is timely?

  • kids don’t trust the company and they certainly don’t trust meatspace/real life.

    the kids i know think they are being watched in meatspace and myspace — they are not the dummies that their parents are

    they know there are cameras

    so what they do is the stuff danah boyd writes about — they actively manage identity.

    danah knows the techniques: moving from one profile to the next, shedding, confusing, splitting, faceting

    i would add to that “hiding in plain sight”: there are signals people in one know know and other do not — mum is the word

    what i don’t think danah is write about is why kids live in myspace more than meatspace: the name of the game is digital for identity artists/thieves

    i wouldn’t be caught dead in a mortar and brick store because in meatspace you can’t stop the cameras

    and there is always another test

    in myspace once you figure out how to pull the wool over the eyes of the company (hiding in plain site) you can be all the things in your head and see what people you sort of trust think of them

    myspace as danah boyd chronicles is where identity 2.0 is in practice — it is where the story of identity 2.0 is being written using techniques that openid doesn’t begin to implement

  • I don’t think this is so much about walls as it is about doors and windows. The word I’d like to throw out here is permeability. I like to compare any system to the natural world we inhabit, and in nature there are many barriers but for every barrier there are agents that can pass freely. I think it’s important that the “walled gardens” of the digital world allow for permeability. So it’s not about the suggestion that the walls are impenetrable, but rather it’s about the mechanisms that allow the correct agents to pass through and mechanisms that allow agents to shift from those that are captive and “safe” to those that can take the “risks” and travel. We do it for our young – perhaps, in the digital worlds (systems) there is a need for a “maturity” also.

  • Brian O' Hanlon

    I went and scribbled something down here.

  • I don’t know
    What words I can say
    The wind has a way
    to talk to me

    Flowers Sleep,
    A silent lulliby
    I pray for reply
    I’m ready

    Quiet day
    Calms me
    oh serenity
    someone, please
    tell me.
    Oh Moon, what is it they say
    Maybe I will know one day.

  • My issues around this topic:

    (1) is the content generated by the community but financial value co-opted by the host? That bothers me to the point that my new favorite term (don’t know whose it original was…) is “digital sharecropper.”

    (2) welcome to the hotel california: you can check out any time you like but you can never leave. We really don’t have precedence for this in meatspace, other than the proverbial situation of the mother who whips out a naked-baby photo for a new dating partner. or perhaps the stuffed dog from scrubs. in other words: it’s freaky, and not in a good way. (getting carried away sexually in public, or being walked in on by one’s parent — or child — well, there is precedence for that. people *deliberately* forget in order to respect interpersonal boundaries of privacy.)

    (3) social network sites, which ironically are about building social capital, don’t seem to have a whole heck of a lot of sophistication about reputation. in fact they ignore their own social capital the same way many corporations do: they only try to keep scandal away, and assume if they become behemoth-sized everyone will admire them by default.

    (i wonder where the idea that “being large is so good that nothing else matters” could possibly have come from?)

  • 1) It seems likely that life was largely “designed” by constant interpenetration by viruses. A massive mutual cooption.

    2) Immune systems and viruses are mutually determined to hack the other’s encryption key. It is the basis of their relationship.

    3) Whether or not the internet is “alive”, it is the expression of the thoughts and impulses of living beings, so it possibly follows the same methods as life.

  • Hi Danah,

    One of your best posts. I loved the investigation of walls and how they relate to and affect our view of self and society.

    Walls create spaces. And those spaces generate assumptions which affect our behavior and even beliefs.

    I think it’s less about the walls and more about the intent and use of any space online that people are really arguing about.

    A world without walls (meat or virtual) is not a great place. I like my private spaces. And I like my “public” ones. And I enjoy the contextualization that walls allow. In fact, I rely on it.

    Sean

  • Steve

    After I wrote the following, I went back and read the other comments. And it looks like that conversation is about the nuances of different kinds and degrees of “walledness”. I guess I went off in a different direction. I have delivered a rant, which appears to have been waiting to pounce, on the topic of why anybody would expect walls on the World Wide Web in the first place – my point being that this is an entirely unjustified expectation. My language is blunt in spots. The easily offended may wish to skip it.

    So here goes.

    I think the problem here is that the World Wide Web by design and intent was created as publicly viewable content. I won’t say “public space” because I don’t think the metaphor of “space” was really in the minds of the designers. The roots of the Hypertext concept historically trace to people like Ted Nelson and Vannevar Bush who certainly didn’t think they were conceptualizing social spaces. They thought of themselves as proposing innovative models for the presentation of data.

    But, was it Bruce Sterling or William Gibson who said “The street finds its own uses for things” (Academia knows this as “repurposing”). So, the WWW has been and is being repurposed by the “street”, both back street and Wall Street, in a variety of manners, and this process continues unabated. But people need to understand that the use of hypertext as social space is in fact a repurposing. And nobody should have as an expectation that the design of the system will be obligated to change to accommodate this innovative use. It may, of course, but this would be grace, not duty.

    So, what this means is this. THERE IS NO EXPECTATION OF PRIVACY ON A WEB PAGE. Period. Full stop. With emphasis. Somebody puts up content that is accessible to a billion or so people worldwide and they get miffed when their parent, or their principal, or their employer sees it? That’s the penalty for stupidity.

    Now if people want to create closed spaces, and offer them as private, they are certainly free to do so, and many such spaces exist (Criminal forums and boards come to mind, just as one example).

    But, in the absence of some explicit commitment by the System Operator of the space in question to maintain it as private, nobody should expect this.

    And as to searchers, the technical means to search content globally exist. And they will be used whether anybody likes it or not. And it could go further. The Robots.txt convention exists in netiquette, not in law. A site would be perfectly free to create an “outlaw” search capability to return *only* results that were disallowed by the Robots.txt files at the target sites. And I have to admit, nosey parker that I am, I would be one of the first users.

    Sure, I understand that people have a legitimate concern to present aspects of themselves to audiences of their choosing. But you don’t do that at the Mall, you don’t do it in the park, and you don’t do it on the street. You do it in designated private spaces. And you don’t do it on globally accessible websites.

    Sorry for the harsh tone. But when somebody is surprised or offended that their info posted on the Web was seen by somebody they had not intended, I really have to wonder what rock they have been hiding under for the last 10 – 15 years. This should be a no-brainer.

    -Steve

  • Hi Danah,

    I am long regular reader of your blog and everytime I read your post I have great takeaways from your writing. But this time I am not sure it is the same this time and I would venture to say that this post is totally out of context.

    ‘Walled Garden’ is a term which is used more in relation to mobile technology world (where I have my day job ) rather than the internet world. There it refers to access to network which is gatekeeped by network operators. The operators are natural monopolies and thus have no incentive to innovate. Keeping their gates closed (restricing access to network) they don’t allow smaller/innovative players to participate in the ecosystem and thus stifling a lot of potential innovation which is why an uproar against Walled gardens. I have never observed/seen anyone use the walled garden in the context of the internet but mobile world everybody up in arms against it, infact there is not one single of the MoMo event that I co-ordinate in bangalore that goes where people don’tt crib about walled garden. It is most favourite past time now :)

    Coming to the example that you have used about data locked in silos of big online corporates I am not sure If I would use the notion/construct of walls to describe them, kind of does not give a good way of thinking about them. I would rather think of them as property rights issue. What are the rights that I enjoy about my own data. ( use/ exchange etc) and for that I think as O Rielly said some time last year we need a Richard Stallman for data and given criticality of issue involved I am sure one will arise soon.

    Cheers,
    Rajan

  • Rajan – there is no doubt that the lack of neutrality on the part of carriers is far greater than on the Internet and that this does create a type of walled garden. But it’s important to note that folks have been bitching and moaning for years about how social network sites are walled gardens because they don’t let users export their friends to other sites. (Check out the FOAF folks for an example of this.)

    From my POV, there’s a problem in the conversation because there’s a value to walls that most of the anti-walled garden folks don’t recognize. They want to tear down all walls. They also believe that people want their data, that they see it as a property right. Yet, most people don’t care that much. They want to be able to hang out with their friends. If it means giving up data, so what, no big loss. The problem in the mobile space is that people can’t do what they want, they can’t gather with their friends. It’s not a data issue there either – it’s a freedom to socialize issue.

  • There are walls and walls……the Olde AOL and Mobile Co’s today try to create impregnable web walls, where none shall pass without paying significant tolls – the “Berlin Wall” model.

    MySpace et al have different sort of walls…egress and entrance is fairly easy, but the core profile stays in situ. Thats the rule of playing there. Upsets some, many don’t give a monkeys.

    Is there a value to web walls? Sure – privacy and security – and the original concept of Paradise is a walled pleasure garden, the controlled environment within allows more delicate flowers to bloom (read this allegorically….).

    And I think teh case for walls is getting stronger – I have blogged before that I think 2007 is the year that Privacy and Trust (sides of a coin) will become major issues in Social Media, mainly because they are being ridden over roughshod right now by every vested and invested interest you can think of.

    If we go back to “meatspace”, in the many Dark Ages when barbarians were at the gates people didn’t wait for the legions, they threw up walls around the towns pdq.

    Except for Sparta of course – they gave every male that become a citizen a spear and shield and told him he was part of the Bronze Wall until he died.

    I suspect, with all the abuse of privacy and trust now happening in online social media, the idea of walled gardens will start to become much more attractive over the next few years.

    Or, should we be like Sparta and require every netizen to carry their own armour and be part of the web’s bronze walls?

  • For me it is still hard to believe that ‘walled garden’ is what it is called but then I don’t know that space you do so I accept that :)

    “Yet, most people don’t care that much” – Hmm ! that makes some sense.

    I was referring to data to include every bit/word about/around a person, those words that is used to describe self, the data that represents friends list, the data that are the scraps/comments that is exchanged with friends.

    You refined what I said to data that makes meaning most to a person, specifically the interaction/socialiazaton and which distinction is certainly needed & very useful.

    – Rajan

  • I think the discussion is truly interesting. It has been said before, but i’d like to stress that it makes a big difference who builds/chooses those walls. If a community provider constructs them to keep his users away from potentially competing providers or allure new users into the garden it does create some bad after taste. Instead i wish users could choose what kind of walls they erect around the contexts they are roaming.

    In meatspace i can move my stuff from one apartment to another without losing the company with the people i like. I can take a friend i know from one context (this pub i visit regularly) to another one (this gallery whose artists i adore). I can roam between contexts and interact with people no matter where they are coming from.

    Take photo sharing communities, for example, it is not easy to roam between Flickr, Fotolog, and Zooomr. To move my “stuff” from one provider to another i loose basically all my mediated social relations. Sure there are always memories, but i am not in control of my own social relations. I have to go through a rather cumbersome process to interact in multiple communities. I can look at photos on all communities, but the simple feature of adding a comment forces me to register. Sharing photos with people from other communities forces me to upload photos twice.

    Context is a great thing, if users are entitled to participate in the construction of walls or fences. But if the contexts are a result of profit-driven community providers, i would rather call it fragmentation and social data silo.

  • I told this story at a CFP2000 session and it bears telling again. Maybe it bears telling every time this comes up.

    Before I do, I should say first that it’s absolutely true that erotica drives representation technologies, and it always has. Second, it’s absolutely true that people are far more forgiving of visual weirdness in games than other types of applications, and that’s partly due to the adrenaline but it is even more due to the relentless design discipline of game designers. They are far better than designers of applications that produce deliverable outputs, in part because simulations are their own ends, and if you have only one goal, you’re far more likely to reach it. Third, dating services predate any and all of these technologies, and they used to be called clan grandmothers or political advisors to rulers telling them who to marry their sons and daughters to. So given all that, it would be strange if dating services were not the next frontier, and if visual weirdness were not tolerated there too, as long as you could see the blemishes on your blind date.

    So here’s the story. In 1996-7 I led a design team working on a massive overhaul to a major dating service, webpersonals. A major focus of this effort was to radically simplify glossary, vocabulary and internal taxonomy/ontology, so that promises to the users could be more easily understood and expressed as new features. And to simplify support calls. And to make it easy to translate the work into other languages. And so that there would be fewer misunderstandings of user expectations when the design evolved. The application was released in 1998 (it’s now called lavalife.com and the basic design hasn’t changed), and took off wildly. My name was on it as the chief designer or something like that, but I wasn’t involved in its evolution after the release. And perhaps I should have been, because a mistake I made at the database layer caused some users serious distress.

    About a year and a half after the release, in mid 1999, I got a few irate (actually very angry and disturbed) calls from women who were absolutely livid about a problem with the service. That being, whereas they’d been told initially that their profiles in the three different silos (long term romance, dating, and casual encounters) would remain separate and that no one would know if they had profiles in the others, the company had broken that understanding and suddenly made it possible to see which other silos a user was registered in.

    Now, it’s common both to have profiles in both long term life time romance seeking and short term overnight encounter silos, maybe for the simple reason that no one wants to wait forever to get laid, and have different standards for one night stands than for “the one”. People often/usually use different names for these different goals, and don’t really want to tell their overnight dates why they aren’t going to get married. Fine. I knew this, and it’s one of the main reasons for the three-silo design. So this misfeature the programmers had added, to see the other profiles, on the rather thin excuse that some users “wanted” it, had been a very major breach of privacy and a violation of the contracts and expectations under which people revealed things like, oh, their list of sexual fetishes. This isn’t necessarily what you want easily visible and linked for your potential romance partners. It opens the possibility of being pursued not for your values, but for your kinks, which was absolutely why we asked utterly different questions in each silo and kept them separate.

    What was my mistake? In the database I had let them call the user’s name the “real” name, on the grounds this was short. I should have had them call it the “secret” name or “hidden” name or “dangerous” name or “what we are being paid not to use as a pivot in the database”. Any of those would have reduced the probability that the misfeature would have been added and reduced the angry calls I got. Which I did feel I deserved as it really was my job to prevent exactly this kind of error by the less ethical, less thoughtful and less talented people I knew would take over once I and the rest of my handpicked top flight design team was gone. That’s what software architects have to do – allow for the chaos and temptation and greed that will cause the system operators to do harm to the users and to compromise their privacy. It’s our job to make that very hard to do, and to seed the entire application at every level from database field names to command verbs to “about” pages, with a short list of clearly-defined terms that prevent such errors from even being considered. That’s what an “ontology” really is.

    So, having told the story of a single wall that fell down to great anger and dismay, I should try to answer the questions:

    I agree that “walls provide context and allow us to have some control over the distribution of our expressions. Walls should be appreciated, even if they are near impossible to construct.” Obviously that’s exactly what was at issue in the webperonals incident. And, I did appreciate the value of the walls and how difficult they were to construct, I just wasn’t careful enough in one detail to keep a particular wall up.

    “If robots can run around grabbing the content”, it’s always a problem, even if the content combined is from affiliated or associated services that everyone knows cooperate in other ways. Even if no one outside is “caching the data”.

    “If the walls come crashing down, what are we actually losing?” Privacy. The right to choose how we present ourselves on that vital first date or job interview. The ability to choose the clothing we wear for the purpose we pursue. And, more important than any of that, the right to disappear, and to cease to be discussed by people using a service that we no longer patronize. That’s an awful lot. We might, in some political contexts, also be losing human rights. Consider the plight of gay activists in Iran or Chinese human rights advocates or Russian anti-Putin journalists. Those who would do us harm gain more power every day to sift through the chaos and find grounds for suspicion and intimidation. The dissidents won’t have the edge forever.

    Go look up the use of Canadian libel suits by bad guys to stop investigative journalism by good guys, and the way they have started to go after the online services that host the articles. The bad guys are learning.

    So I agree completely that “walls provide context, context is critical for individuals to properly express themselves in a socially appropriate way. I fear that our loss of walls is resulting in a very confused public space with far more visibility than anyone can actually handle.” That is true.

    That said, if the user is not themselves in charge of all this wall raising and falling, and not far better informed about the consequences of choices that should require more than a mouse click to authorize, then we’re creating a Panopticon.

    And, if the users cannot organize in self-protective groups as factions and interest groups, and receive hearing, redress and before-the-fact notice of changes that affect their privacy and possibly public image, then relying on well-meaning gurus is futile. Regardless of how brilliant we are, we have bad days, and we have no moral right to substitute our judgement for the user’s consent. Outing real names is so noxious, and so liable to be wrong or misguided, that it needs handling on a level that looks more like Scooter Libby’s trial than like a chewing-out at the office. There have to be real consequences for these failures, and the only way to guarantee that is for users to band together and collectively bargain. And, when a legal or social problem arises, to have at least the right to have one’s friends handle the situation, before going public.

    So, for instance, rather than assign someone a label that may stick to them for life, even one that they put on a pseudonym in the fetish room, it’s essential (not optional, not just a good idea) to have peers identified who can intervene, ask a question about intent or choice of words, and de-escalate any inter-user conflict or conflict between users and the system. The net is littered with dead and half-dead social networks now and that’s mostly because they ignored those long lists of friends when the time came to consider whether to throw someone off. Or because they arbitrarily changed the rules. Or because they created a “data jail” that users realized was a poor format in which to keep their increasingly useful data.

    So yeah, walls are useful, but only if they’re my walls, or the walls put up by my friends and I voluntarily. Another thing games do well is let us choose our own teams or ladders. Even if all we want to do is grenade each other…

  • sim

    Oops – I’m a bit late to this one! Anyway I was just directed to this article today by a friend who thought it would be up my street. It was.

    Very interesting post and discussion. It ties in with my belief that not only are walls desirable, but that we need finer granularity – local walls. Issues of privacy come a poor second to hype and buzz in the web2.0 world, but without providing the infrastructure for private lives to be conducted on the web we’re sleepwalking into a post-celebrity culture of universal and unrelenting exposure.

    In Defence of Walls

  • Hmm. Leaving aside whether ‘meatspace’ is actually at all an accurate definition, I don’t understand why ‘walled garden’ is suddenly becoming an ‘in-vogue’ term again, ten years after the first wave of “convergence” flopped. The main thing (as sim comments) would seem to be control of privacy – one can characterise that as ‘walls’ but the granularity of the controls involved – plus the fact that they’re always permeable in one direction – wears down the “walls” metaphor pretty quickly. But it’s interesting that numbers of companies (Ning, Vox, Tanglr) are offering the capacity to manage invite-only ‘private social networks’.

  • Thanks! Sort of…

    While we’ve gained so much since the dial-up BBS days and pre-search-engine USENET days, we’ve really lost a lot with that collapse of context. We lose so much potential when we arbitrarily destroy the boundaries of every online venue/situation.

    And there’s no TECHNICAL reason why we can’t bring back rich contextual boundaries.

    But I have such incredible difficulty communicating the benefits of those boundaries, and what those boundaries even are, to business folk and especially to techies. Seriously, I’ve tried for years and just lost patience with it. And a big reason for that difficulty lies in the term “wall” and how it’s used here.

    Talk about a loaded term. There’s the confusion of the concept “wall” as in “walled garden” with all other sorts of contextual walls. Try to discuss this, and techies immediately start thinking “walls are bad, they’re old-fashioned outmoded artificial Microsoft-style evil;” you can just watch that internal dialogue get going within that rigid frame and the ears are shut to other ideas. Similarly, business types start thinking in the narrow realm of “walls are for holding on to value and keeping it in our database/product/network.”

    If I talk to someone far outside the tech biz though, it’s easy. So it goes.

  • A walled garden can be a detriment to users when it is corporate-controlled and the user has no say over it, but I hope that in the future we will all be able to make our own walled gardens out of our internet personas. As you’ve discussed in other posts as well as this one, context is difficult to maintain in an open internet society. This has led to many problems of contextualized relationships having free reign in de-contextualized cyberspace (e.g. your boss finding your dating profile). Facebook has taken measures to include privacy settings that allow you to contextualize the information that each individual friend can see about you; can something like this happen for the Internet at large? In real life we have many identities, but online we are only afforded one. Can personal walled gardens allow us the same amount of online identities as we have in real life?

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