The Tragedy of the Walled Garden

The evolution of online communities can be closely tracked to the ideas codified in Hardin’s tragedy of the commons. Today, the largest social networks are walled gardens built on two fundamental rules: frictionless communication between members of existing networks and limited access to the larger community. A consequence of these rules is that — with rare exceptions — only the most powerful voices have access to the one finite resource in the internet age: mindshare.

In his classic paper, The Tragedy of the Commons, Garrett Hardin sets forth a foundational rule: “freedom in a commons brings ruins to all.” Simply put, Hardin argues that given freedom in a commons, individuals will act in their own self-interest and against the best interests of the whole group. Over time, a finite resource of the commons will be depleted.

Social networks exert control over access to mindshare. Indeed, social networks are conceptual walled gardens that compartmentalize communications to existing networks. Thus, for example, a post on Facebook rarely escapes the boundaries of one’s friends and a tweet is rarely seen by the larger community. The net effect of the walled garden is that access to mindshare is strictly controlled by the owners of the social network.

Controlled access to mindshare is not an accident of social networks; it is the fundamental purpose for a social network’s existence. Indeed, after gaining critical mass, the well trodden-path of a social-network leads to monetizing mindshare. Specifically, social networks monetize access to mindshare outside of one’s own network. As the population of a social network grows, so does the number of unconnected networks, eventually leading to steeper costs for access to the mindshare of more distant networks.

From the perspective of larger, more economically powerful, entities, mindshare monetization is not an issue. However, a consequence of increasing cost is the increasing difficulty for new or dissonant voices to be heard. The net result of mindshare monetization is the emergence of imperial order over each social network fiefdom.

As a rule, imperial order drives consolidation, structure, and ultimately, hegemony. Imperial order does not cope well with dissenting voices or non-normative interactions. The consequence to our online world, of course, is that we lose out on the fundamental promise of the internet that your voice is equivalent to any other voice. Put another way, living in a walled garden means that if you don’t agree with the prevailing opinion, you don’t have a voice.

The tragedy of the commons is a framework that cannot be easily applied to the internet. Hardin proposed his framework in view of a limited resources that, once depleted, would harm everyone. Hardin, of course, applied his framework to human population and food supply. When the tragedy of the commons is applied to the internet, one must ask: what is the resource and what is the individual?

As stated above, social networks are architected with the goal of consolidating and protecting access to user mindshare. Thus, applying the Hardin’s framework to the internet necessarily means that the resource is the user population and the individuals being protected are the dominant ideas purchasing access to user mindshare.

The fundamental promise of the internet is that ideas, when exchanged freely, give rise to innovation that moves everyone forward. Instinctively, the broader online community recognizes this and has produced increasingly controversial commons such as the dark web (e.g., silk road) and un-moderated platforms like 4chan. However, each iteration of a digital commons move further into the shadows and becomes less accessible to the general population.

The tragedy we all face, today, is the increasing cost of disseminating an idea. Take a look at any vertical on the contemporary internet: apps, publications, marketing of offline services, etc, and you will find increasing costs to disseminate ideas. The internet needs its commons to offset these costs. More specifically, it needs arenas where nascent ideas can present themselves and be considered by a wide swath of the population without paying for access.

The consequence of walled gardens is that each new idea is necessarily more limited in scope, less disruptive, and more supportive of the existing order. Walled gardens demand allegiance to the prevailing aesthetic, philosophical, or structural hegemony before ideas can be considered. The tragedy of the walled garden, then, is that new ideas that might push us all forward are routinely killed off to the detriment of all.

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