Things Go In Cycles: The Return of Walled Gardens?

"The Wheel of Time turns, and Ages come and pass, leaving memories that become legend. Legend fades to myth, and even myth is long forgotten when the Age that gave it birth comes again."

It’s a hot Saturday morning here in Houston, and the sunlight is so strong you can almost feel the weight of it on your skin. Maybe it’s early onset of sunstroke, but I felt like musing on random things. Feel free to skip this post; it isn’t likely to be useful to anyone.

But I’m thinking about Google+ more, about Internet 2.0, and human beings. I wonder if the future — what we might term Internet 2.0 — will simply be a return of the walled gardens of the early days of the Internet. Things go in cycles. The Wheel of Time turns.

Before The Internet

Remember these?

I remember the dim days (and I’m sure some of the older tech people really remember) before I discovered the Internet in college. Remember Bulletin Board Systems? Was it 7th grade? I remember my friend and I were hunched over a Commodore 64 with some 300 baud modem with one of those old acoustic couplers a la War Games, because he had somehow gotten the phone number and password to a pirate BBS that supposedly had free video games available on it. It took us a half hour maybe, but I remember our excitement when we got it. It was like being granted entrance into some mystical inner sanctum of mysteries.

The Sysop was unto like a deity, benevolent or malevolent, depending on the BBS. Incur his wrath, and you were booted off pretty quickly and banned.

Then again, if you got established in one BBS, there were enough people talking about — and providing access info to — other BBS’s, so that you could quickly add to your list of phone numbers and access codes. It really was like being initiated into a secret brotherhood.

And really, the early Internet services — Compuserve, AOL, etc. — were not much more than giant BBS’s. Giant walled gardens. You needed to know not only how to find it, but be granted entrance into the mysteries.

The Early Internet

In college, I discovered the Internet. All in the pursuit of a girl. The size of the Usenet Newsgroups, and the level of intelligence and expertise in many of them, was just… staggering. The newsgroups were public, of course, but since the “public” had no idea that the Internet existed, it still felt very much like a tiny little self-selected community. Even if you were aware of it, the things you had to learn how to do to navigate and work in the Internet were daunting. (I taught myself very rudimentary UNIX just to be able to send emails.) There was very much a walled garden aspect to the whole thing.

Marketers, if they were aware of the Internet, ignored it for the most part since the audience numbers were vanishingly small.

Yet, the positives were immense. In retrospect, I feel as if every single social network yearns for the old days. Discussions were focused and intelligent. No one bothered to put up a post talking about some cute puppy he saw, because the amount of work it took, and because the other members would just ignore such posts (and likely flame you to boot). We learned from each other, and took that learning to our real-world lives.

I was active mostly in rec.arts.deckmaster groups because I was really into Magic: the Gathering back then. Sharing deck builds, strategies, and tactics with the other members of the newsgroup helped me win local tournaments left and right. The ability to buy rarest of the rare cards off the newsgroups (rudimentary e-commerce, based entirely on trust) gave me an advantage in my local scene.

In fact, I organized a national student activism movement using the Internet. And I knew this would be a powerful thing then. But again, the whole enterprise had a very much private-only feel to it, not because of any particular policies, but because the early Internet was not easy to use.

The Current Age

The Dotcom boom, and the echo-boom of Web 2.0 and social media and so on, felt like we were throwing the doors open to all of these ‘closed’ networks. Enormous fortunes were made and lost by people and companies that were doing nothing much more than opening up these walled gardens to the billions of people who discovered that there were rare flowers in those gardens.

The search engine revolutionized the Internet for me and for billions of other people. No longer did I have to know where to go, how to get in, and figure out how to be accepted. I just had to go search for whatever it was I was looking for, and voila, there I went. Information that was previously difficult to get became first easy to get and then difficult to avoid getting.

And the marketers got in, and got in in force. We all know how that impacted our online habits.

Taking several thousand steps back, what I see is that the current Internet paradigm is somewhat akin to being in a giant bookstore. Every single book is right there out in the open, in shelves to be easily accessed. Hell, not only easily accessed, but begging for people to come by, pull it out of the bookshelf, and give it a glance. The people who are good at SEO are like those books that are stacked up on feature tables right at the entrance; the ones who aren’t are like the small tomes stuck on the bottom shelf in the New Age section. There are books that are big hits, and there are ones that never get read.

But the point is that each and every “book” is right there in the open, and easily accessible to the public. There are no walled gardens here, just a broad and wide smorgasbord of publicly offered content.

The Next Age?

You know what I’m wondering? If the next turn of the Wheel would bring back the walled gardens in a real way.

Look at Google+… right now, it feels more like the old newsgroups than it does the hot mess that is Facebook. Discussions can be longer, can be edited, and can be targeted. If I don’t want to hear from the public on something I’d like to discuss only with my friends, I don’t have to — I can target the “post” just to my Friends circle. If I don’t want someone listening in, I can simply not include them in the appropriate Circle.

Google+ is a giant wall-making machine. And boy, does it feel good. And since I can do it to others, I know that they can do it to me. That makes me wonder what conversations, what information, what expertise I might be missing. It brings back the same feelings of the old BBS days.

Speculation is that Google+ isn’t a play for social, but a play for something much bigger. I wrote about that here. And I’m sure we’ll all be wrong about what the future will actually look like; prognostication is a tricky business, after all.

But the high-level view does suggest something of the sort, no? A return to the old ways of controlled content, controlled access, sharp distinctions between members and non-members of a tribe? Search engines won’t matter quite as much as they do today, not because content can’t be indexed, but because access is not automatically granted.

Thing is, it has always been thus with human beings. We all have the social impulse, the need to belong. But immediately following that need to belong is the need to exclude. Preschool kids do it naturally, forming little cliques of four year olds, distinguishing between “best friends” and the other kids. Clans, tribes, war bands, companies, organizations, associations, even nations… all of them are expressions of the need to exclude in order to belong.

Why do we think we outgrow that instinct as we grow older? Why did we believe that the Internet, with its great leveling effect, would change human behavior forever?

It will not. And what we’re seeing is the evolution of the Internet to fit human beings, rather than the evolution of human beings to fit the Internet.

The Wheel of Time turns, and Ages come and pass, leaving memories that become legend. Legend fades to myth, and even myth is long forgotten when the Age that gave it birth comes again.

-rsh