Why walled gardens may not work for membership organisations

Walled garden

The Economist questions whether "walled garden" social networks like Facebook will be able to continue to lock in user content. In Everywhere and nowhere, the author doubts whether there is a long-term business in the walled garden model, unless web mail or other services allow transmission of content across the boundaries. I wonder if the same issue will face those membership organisations creating closed member-only networks. Here first is the general analysis from The Economist, which acknowledges the value of social networking sites:

Social networking has made explicit the connections between people, so that a thriving ecosystem of small programs can exploit this “social graph” to enable friends to interact via games, greetings, video clips and so on.
It is this interaction that Clay Shirkey celebrates in his book Here Comes Everybody. He explained at a recent RSA lecture how networking means people are organising without organisations, without boundaries. The Economists adds:
But should users really have to visit a specific website to do this sort of thing? “We will look back to 2008 and think it archaic and quaint that we had to go to a destination like Facebook or LinkedIn to be social,” says Charlene Li at Forrester Research, a consultancy. Future social networks, she thinks, “will be like air. They will be anywhere and everywhere we need and want them to be.” No more logging on to Facebook just to see the “news feed” of updates from your friends; instead it will come straight to your e-mail inbox, RSS reader or instant messenger. No need to upload photos to Facebook to show them to friends, since those with privacy permissions in your electronic address book can automatically get them.The problem with today's social networks is that they are often closed to the outside web. The big networks have decided to be “open” toward independent programmers, to encourage them to write fun new software for them. But they are reluctant to become equally open towards their users, because the networks' lofty valuations depend on maximising their page views—so they maintain a tight grip on their users' information, to ensure that they keep coming back. As a result, avid internet users often maintain separate accounts on several social networks, instant-messaging services, photo-sharing and blogging sites, and usually cannot even send simple messages from one to the other. They must invite the same friends to each service separately. It is a drag.
The same issue is raised by Lynn Wallenstein who predicts the Decentralisation of Social Networks in 2009/2010.
People are going to realize the value of their information being held by sources like Facebook, MySpace, Flickr, Delicious and want to control it and “own it”. They will realize the danger or loss they would face if cut off from these sources and the value of the information that they are freely giving large corporations.
Lynn commends the dataportability movement which promotes the ability to discover and share data between tools and sites, and the disco-project for "silo free living". Lynn says this involves making the social network modular and building connectors to make those modules speak. She gives an example:

We have three friends; Sue, John and Nancy. They all each have a blog, a micro blogging solution, online photos and interest groups they are apart of. They want to be able to effortlessly share these bits of information, but each have their own preference of the tools they want to use. Sue has a Wordpress blog, uses Twitter and Flickr for her photos. John stores all his information on Facebook. Nancy has a hybrid solution where she uses Facebook for most things, but like Flickr for her photos.

So what now? Well currently all three friends would have to have accounts on Facebook, Twitter, Flickr and follow multiple Wordpress blogs. Not only is that annoying for each of them to have to use tools they don’t want to, but that means they each need to check in tons of places to keep up. So the Diso solution would be that everyone runs in the configuration they want to whether that is self hosted or hosting with a provider that supports cross platform communication and when you want to check your friends information it is displayed for you in your UI from your friend’s chosen source.

So from our example when you wanted to look at your friends pictures, if you used Facebook for photos you would view all the photo information in Facebook, but for your friends that used Flickr or something like gallery, it would talk to those web sites and get the pictures and display them for you.

So what does this all mean? If everything “falls into place” correctly you will be able to host your data wherever you want and still communicate with your friends without your information being held hostage by one centralized provider. This is not to say that commercial providers won’t exist, they will just be competing based on features and not winning because “I have to be there, that is where all my friends are”, but win because they have the best feature set/interface/network/speed/tools.

By having open source solutions to social networks components, you can of course choose to self host everything and truly “own it” but the larger providers if they don’t already provide methods to export/get your data, the “connectors” will allow you to take your information where you want to go, so while you may not “have it” in terms of you are hosting it with a company, you have the freedom to move it where you want, in essence making it yours. Using Flickr but decide you like Picassa Google better? No problem… move it.

I think similar issues may well challenge membership organisations as they build social networking capabilities into the services that they offer to members. There may be an inclination, on the part of organisations, to try and keep members within the walled garden, behind a login, providing special tools and access to content as part of the benefit from paying dues. The argument may also be that "our members aren't terribly technical, they want a simple solution in one place". However, I can see problems that will stem from the way people participate online, and the one per cent rule. This rule of thumb, seen across many online communities, is that one per cent of those involved initiate fresh content, while some ten percent comment and the rest read or view. There's nothing wrong with that - provided any community can retain the one per cent. Without them things die. The problem with walled gardens, for the one per centers, is that they are only attractive if other people like them are also around. There's no fun posting items if others don't respond. If you operate in many different online places - as the one-per-centers generally do - then it is frustrating being unable to link to content you have created within the garden. You know few people will go through a registration process, even if that is available to non-members. Of course, the response of the walled-garden organisations will be - "recruit your friends and then they can come in to the garden". This might have worked a few years ago, but as The Economist is arguing, it isn't likely to work in future even where membership of network systems like Facebook is free. The new online system UnLtdWorld recognises this, and promises data in and data out, while the English Heritage Our Place takes a different approach. The RSA is in the midst of moving its prototype RSA Networks site to a new site integrated with other offerings to Fellows, and so is likely to continue to be an interesting testbed for these discussions. But supposing a membership organisation heeds the warnings implicit in The Economist article, and decides not to go for a walled garden? What's the alternative? I think one route would be on he one hand to help its members to become more digitally literate across the web, and on the other to create open areas of sociability that would draw non-members into its ambit. At that point, as new relationships develop, there are opportunities to provide additional premium services not generally available. That's the route my friends at Ruralnetonline are taking with their mix of free and paid-for services. Anyone got other practical examples? Do you agree that walled-garden are unlikely to succeed in the long run?