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Do Users Care If the Web Stays Open?

As Facebook draws close to the billion-user mark and a $100 billion market valuation, the giant social network’s dominance has reignited fears about the decline and fall of the open Web. John Battelle argues that we need a manifesto for the truly open Internet in order to rally the troops. Blogging veteran Robert Scoble says it is already too late and that he has given up the fight. And longtime technology watcher and investor Esther Dyson says we need to remember that the Internet is prone to cycles of open vs. closed. In the end, the only thing that determines whether a closed model succeeds is users’ willingness to put up with its restrictions. For Facebook, this is its biggest strength and its biggest weakness.

Not so long ago, the open Web seemed to be the default for most users: America Online (AOL), one of the longest-lasting of the old walled-garden portals, was mostly an afterthought, used only by older consumers who were tied to its dial-up business (which even now continues to provide the lion’s share of AOL’s declining profits while the company seeks to expand). Google was the model of the open Web, with its objective algorithms and commitment to sending users away instead of trying to keep them on its site. Websites and blogs were run on open platforms such as WordPress (see disclosure, below), TypePad, or Blogger. Anyone could link to anyone.

Along came Facebook, which followed the ultimate “gated community” approach right from the outset by restricting access to university students. As it grew and expanded, it maintained this walled-garden strategy by making it easy for users (and their precious data) to get into its network but much harder for them to get out of it—something Google (GOOG) highlighted in an attack on the social network’s data-hoarding policies. The trend has only continued with the rollout of Facebook’s frictionless-sharing apps, which effectively make the network the hub for personal activity of all kinds, even newspaper reading.

If a Garden Appeals, Do Walls Matter?

What is the benefit for users that makes them so eager to place their entire online experience in the hands of a single company? As with America Online, a controlled network provides a friendlier, safer—and ultimately easier to use—version of the Internet for non-geeks. John Battelle put it well: “The open Web is full of spam, shady operators, and blatant falsehoods. Outside of a relatively small percentage of high quality sites, most of the Web is chock full of popup ads and other interruptive come-ons, [but] in the curated gardens of places like Apple and Facebook, the weeds are kept to a minimum, and the user experience is just … better.”

For open-Web advocates such as Dave Winer, there is almost nothing to like about this phenomenon or—to shift the spotlight from Facebook for a moment—the fact that a powerful, global, real-time information network like Twitter is controlled by a single corporate entity. The risks for Twitter users have been highlighted by the company’s announcement that it will censor tweets if asked to do so, as well as by attempts on the part of countries such as Brazil (and even the U.S.) to force the company either to turn over data or block specific accounts.

Open alternatives such as and would-be-Facebook-competitor Diaspora exist. They have attracted support from the hard-core geek community. They have made virtually zero impact on the vast majority of Internet users, who seem more than happy to disregard all the warnings from open advocates about proprietary models—including those from Tim Berners-Lee, who invented the World Wide Web.

If there is one thing we can learn from the runaway success of Apple (AAPL), it is that the vast majority of users don’t particularly care about such abstract concepts as openness or metaphors like walled gardens. What they care about, as Chris Saad of Echo and noted recently, is that products or services that matter to them are easy to use and provide some benefit to them. In effect, consumers are willing to make a trade-off between the virtues of data portability and the downside of having a single entity control their experience and the benefit they get from that product or service.

Without Utility, Users Will Revolt

If you offer a really attractive garden, users are more than happy to spend time there without moaning about the walls or gates. In a nutshell, this explains Facebook’s dramatic rise: It has made connecting with friends and sort-of friends so easy, providing so many obvious benefits—photo sharing being one of the main ones—that most users have been blissfully unconcerned about giving so much personal data to the network. While some argue they should be paid for their membership, others clearly feel that the trade-off is more than worth it.

So far, so good. The looming risk for Facebook and any other provider that wants to control its users’ output—including Twitter and Google—is that even complacent users can become militant when a service they depend on mistreats them in some way. We have seen flashes of that whenever Facebook changed its privacy settings, when Twitter changed its censorship rules, and even when Google started fiddling with search results to promote its own social network, instead of remaining objective about its content. We see flashes of it when Facebook blocks content, as it has with breast-feeding photos, causing demonstrations by outraged user groups.

While none of these tremors has turned into a seismic shift so far, that doesn’t mean they won’t. AOL seemed so dominant in its time that it managed to convince Time Warner (TWX) that it was worth $160 billion in what remains one of the most disastrous-ever technology deals. AOL faded because users realized that the benefits of being inside its garden were far outweighed by downsides and that the open Internet wasn’t so bad, after all. Will users eventually come to the same conclusion about Apple or Facebook—or even Google?

For social networks and tools such as Facebook and Twitter, the relationship with users is even more fragile. Facebook’s more than 800 million users may seem like an unassailable moat around the giant social network. If enough of them should decide they are better off elsewhere, Facebook will become a ghost town. Twitter could easily meet the same fate. As Mark Zuckerberg prepares to count his billions, he needs to remember that in the end, it’s not open or closed that wins. It’s useful and not useful.

Disclosure: WordPress is backed by Automattic, a venture capital firm that is an investor in the parent company of this blog, Giga Omni Media. Om Malik, the founder of Giga Omni Media, is also a venture partner at True.

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