The Open Web: What the Internet Was Supposed To Be.

A ‘Walled Garden’ is a platform in which the owner can control behavior, information and economy. It can also restrict any outside influence. Wall Gardens tend to flow in and out of history, and there is one key catalyst that keeps bringing them down.

History doesn’t repeat, but it does rhyme.

By looking at a case study on how an openly distributed project broke down the ISP Walled Gardens of the 90's.

In the past, the leading internet service providers (ISPs) were the sole portals of knowledge and information. These portals represented a small section of any knowledge that they believe users wanted to see. And these portals, didn’t play nice with each other. Folks that connected to America Online could not chat with anyone on Prodigy and vice versa. Yes, each ISP were building a wall, and widening their moat to defend their marketing position. And for years, they acquired a strong user base, working tirelessly to enhance their own internal products and features. Even acquiring other smaller firms to incorporate it into their product suite.

With each of the walls getting higher, made it increasingly difficult for them to talk to each other. On top of that, they all used different hardware, protocols and operating systems, to support these features. With each one having their own sunk cost in their own platforms. It was unlikely any of these major players were going to conform to another platform. In essence, they were building their own Tower of Babel. Fortunately, a small research firm out in Europe, was developing the Rosetta Stone.

A CERN researcher by the name of Tim Berners-Lee, was about to change the game. He was working on a new way humans connected with each other. He and his colleagues were working on a framework that would revolutionize how humans exchanged information. This framework included:
HTML: The HyperText Markup Language. It was a formatting language that allowed text to access other text.
URL: A Uniform Resource Link (or Identifier), was the address that was unique can identify each resource across the internet.
HTTP: HyperText Transfer Protocol: This allowed for retrieval information from on URLs.

This framework would be known as the World Wide Web. This framework helped unify information across ISPs and academia from around the world.

Hyper Text Markup Language (HTML), was a clever way for text to access other text. What’s interesting about HTML is in its simplicity. With a very basic set of rules, people could start creating web pages of information, objects, pictures and videos. But the best thing about HTML, was that the code was free. In fact, all these key pieces of the framework were given for free.

It was one of the first major open source projects. Because of its simplicity and ease of scale. The web framework was able to be worked on by thousands of engineers. This help accelerate its size and adoption. In addition, it was constantly refined and edited. Which improved it by a massive rate. The most attractive aspect of it being open sourced, was there was no overlord controlling everything. No silos, or walled gardens, just people helping people. It was the openness of this framework that lead to the spreading of digital information.

At first, the WWW framework went on largely unnoticed for years, until it started picking up traction on major academic universities and eventually budding tech companies followed suit. Without this framework, there would be no Google, no Facebook. Quite frankly, our digital landscape would be much different than it is today.

Then what became of the Walled Garden ISPs? This newly innovative framework and technology really democratized the digital landscape and change was inevitable. They began experience an ‘unbundling effect’. Those product features such that were once only accessible via their platform was now being developed and distributed outside their platforms. Products as web browsers, email platforms and instant messengers eventually became freely available outside their gardens. Eventually, all that was left to protect was their actual internet connection service.

With their walls crumbling, and the core business model exposed. Companies were able to provide better products and services and an exceptional rate. This was something that the ISPs weren’t able to compete and the once dominate voice in the internet landscape, became nothing more than an echo. It becomes clear that openness is key to what, and inspires innovation, economic growth and breaks down walled gardens.

The Duopoly: Digital Advertising’s Walled Gardens:

The digital advertising is currently a $100 Billion dollar a year industry. Nearly 80% of that money goes towards the duopoly: Google and Facebook. They are called the duopoly because they are essentially walled gardens in the advertising space. Google and Facebook have built walls to protect their marketing position by keeping their platform isolated and siloed.

Google and Facebook both know who exactly uses their platform through a login or email. They track and store all your online behaviors into a large database and sell it to the highest bidder. However, buyers of this data can only be used in their respected platforms. Their key is the identity that they can use to target users within that platform, and there is no guarantee that they can find the same users outside of their gardens.

Reminiscent of the ISP Walled Gardens, is there a better way to help unify these platforms? Here are some thoughts that the industry has been speaking about.

  • Universal ID: If there was one ID to rule them all, it would be a Universal ID. Similar to a person’s social security number. This ID would allow advertisers to know who exactly is seeing their ad and where they are and what they are doing. This would require sincere agreement from all parties including explicit user consent. However, due to privacy concerns and litigations including GDPR, it will be a hard sell for people to consent at a high rate.
  • Holistic Sampling: Using advance machine learning and statistical models, we could garner data that is not at a person level but would be on a lower fidelity such as location. Similar to how media mix models (MMM) were used by advertising in the past when TV, Print and Radio accounted for mostly all advertising spend. Digital could be incorporated here to help enhance these models. The problem here is that marketers are constantly craving the highest fidelity of data possible to make media optimizations.
  • Blockchain: A wildly popular technology that has yet to enter its mass adoption phase could be an interesting opportunity for unifying the platforms. It would allow for people to be advertised on the personal level while protecting their identity through their ledger. In addition, would provide greater transparency across all advertising parties. The difficulty here is blockchain currently cannot handle number of ads being served to a user to update quickly enough. However this technology is evolving fast and could be the future of advertising.

Whatever the solution may be, we know that history tells us that Walled Gardens can be dissolved through open and transparent innovation. This innovation, becomes a spark for economic growth, and prosperity. Regardless of the how ready we or the industry is, I am confident that in the future, we will embrace a unifying advertising framework, similarly to how were embraced the Berners-Lee’s innovation over 20 years ago.

Thank you for reading! Feel free to give me a clap or share on your feeds.

Ad Philosopher, Measurement Muse and Data DJ.