Do users really care whether the web is open or not?

As Facebook draws close to the billion-user mark and a $100-billion market valuation, the giant social network’s dominance has reignited old 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, but blogging veteran Robert Scoble says it is too late and he has already 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 the willingness of users to put up with its restrictions. For Facebook, that is both its biggest strength and its biggest weakness.
Not that long ago, the open web seemed to be the default for most users: America Online (s 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 (a business that even now continues to provide the lion’s share of AOL’s declining profits). Google was the model of the open web, with its objective algorithms and its commitment to sending users away instead of trying to keep them on its site. Websites and blogs were run on open platforms like WordPress (see disclosure), TypePad or Blogger, and anyone could link to anyone.
Then along came Facebook, which took 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 — something Google highlighted in an attack on the social network’s data-hoarding policies. And the trend has only continued with the rollout of Facebook’s frictionless-sharing apps, which effectively make the network the hub of personal activity of all kinds, even newspaper reading.

If the garden is appealing, the walls don’t 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? The same as it was with America Online: namely, the fact that it provides a friendlier, safer — and ultimately easier to use — version of the Internet for non-geeks. As John Battelle puts it:

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 like 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 and by attempts on the part of countries like Brazil (and even the U.S.) to force the company to either turn over data or block specific accounts that they disapprove of.
Open alternatives such as and the would-be Facebook competitor Diaspora exist, and they have attracted support from the hard-core geek community. But they have made virtually zero impact on the vast majority of Internet users, who seem more than happy to disregard all the warnings about proprietary models coming from open advocates, including the man who invented the World Wide Web.
If there is one thing that we can learn from the runaway success of Apple, it is that the vast majority of users don’t particularly care about abstract concepts like openness or metaphors like walled gardens. What they care about, as Chris Saad of Echo and noted recently, is that the products or services that matter to them about are easy to use and provide some benefit to them. In effect, they are willing to make a trade-off between the virtues of data portability or the downsides of having a single entity control their experience and the benefit they get from that product or service.

If you stop being useful, users will revolt

If you have a really attractive garden, users are more than happy to spend time there without moaning about the walls or the gates. In a nutshell, that explains Facebook’s dramatic rise: It has made connecting with friends and sort-of friends so easy and provided so many obvious benefits — photo sharing being one of the main ones — that most users have been blissfully unconcerned about giving so much of their personal data to the network. And 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. But the looming risk for both Facebook and any other provider that wants to control the output of its users — including Twitter and Google — is that even complacent users can become militant when the service they depend on mistreats them in some way. We have seen flashes of that whenever Facebook changes its privacy settings, when Twitter changed its censorship rules, and even when Google started fiddling with its search results to promote its own social network instead of remaining objective about its content. And 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 that it was worth $160 billion, in what is still one of the most disastrous technology deals of all time. But it faded because users realized that the benefits of being inside its garden were far outweighed by the 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 like Facebook and Twitter, the relationship with users is an even more fragile one. Facebook’s 800 million users may seem like an unassailable moat around the giant social network, but if enough of them 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.
Post and thumbnail photos courtesy of Flickr users Fabio Venni and Giuseppe Bognanni