UK Web Focus (Brian Kelly)

Innovation and best practices for the Web

Just What Is A “Walled Garden”?

Posted by Brian Kelly on 22 Dec 2008

You read comments, from time to time, dismissing a service because it’s a ‘walled garden’. And no further discussion seems to be needed. It’s a walled garden. Period.

Except the research community is expected to challenge received wisdom and to be prepared to challenge conventional thinking. So let me ask the question. What is a walled garden?

The entry in Wikipedia states that the expression “refers to a closed set or exclusive set of information services provided for users (a method of creating a monopoly or securing an information system)“. The entry goes on to state that the term “is in contrast to providing consumers access to the open Internet for content and e-commerce“.

The examples of walled garden’s provided include the original AOL Service (“AOL started its business with revenue-sharing agreements with certain information providers in their subscriber-only space“), many of the initial set of services provided on WAP and Apple’s iPhone service.

But the definition is related primarily to phone and mobile devices – there is no suggestion that a Web-based service can be a walled garden.

The service’s definition does however address a broader notion of a walled garden: “On the Internet, a walled garden is an environment that controls the user’s access to Web content and services”.

It is interesting that this definition is not judgmental. The entry explains that “AOL UK’s Kid Channel established a walled garden to prevent access to inappropriate Web sites” although the entry does goe on to describe how a more common use of a walled garden is to protect business revenue: “a common reason for the construction of walled gardens is for the profits they generate: vendors collaborate to direct consumer’s Internet navigation to each others’ Web sites and to try to keep them from accessing the Web sites of competitors“.

A walled garden then, may be established to protect members of a community. So if an educational institution installs software “to prevent access to inappropriate Web sites” it then will be providing a walled garden.

Similarly as the UK’s JISCMail has been established to support the UK’s higher and further education communities an has policies which restrict use by people outside this community, we might also regard JISCMail as being part of a walled garden.

But the term walled garden seems to be more commonly used in a derogatory fashion, especially when used in the context of social networking services. But is Facebook, for example, really a walled garden? And if it is, then how significant is this fact?

I’m assuming that the criticism of Facebook is based on the belief that you can add data to Facebook but you can’t get it out again. Such criticisms could also be applied to Apple with its iPhone service: applications can only be installed using Apple’s iStore service, unless you are willing to take the (possibly criminal) risk of ‘jailbreaking’ the device.  And recently I’ve read an article published in the Register which argues that Apple [is]  more closed than Microsoft.

The good news for Facebook users, though, is that there are ways in which you can use the service without facing such barriers, Unlike, say, the situation with mobile phones there don’t seem to be significant barriers to getting your stuff into Facebook. There are, for example, a variety of ways in which blog posts can be incorporated into Facebook. And many other Web 2.0 services (such as Twitter, Slideshare, ) also provide Facebook applications which provide the convenience of allow their services to be used within the Facebook environment. And the data held in such services can still be managed by the host service – this, for example, is the approach I take with the UK Web Focus blog, which is managed in the environment, but is also surfaced within Facebook.

But let’s be honest – not all Facebook applications allow data to be exported. but need this be a overriding reason why Facebook should be avoided? After all when, in August 2007, students made use of Facebook which was successful in forcing the HSBC to make a U-turn on its plans to introduce student charges (a story which was picked up by the BBC and  by many newspapers and bloggers) the important aspect was the exploitation of a popular communications medium. Job successfully done, many of the students who were involved would probably argue. And to suggest that they should wait until a social networking service which the twittering classes would prefer is to miss the point.

What do you think a walled garden is? And how should we respond (as individuals and, perhaps, as educators and policy makers) to the popularity of services which may (or may not) be classed as walled gardens?

12 Responses to “Just What Is A “Walled Garden”?”

  1. Wendell said

    For me, the problem with “walled gardens” isn’t ease of importing or managing data – it’s the issue of access to data afterwards. If I post data (pics, audio, etc.) on host “X”, can I give someone else permission to access it without requiring them to also sign up for that same service? If they can’t, maybe I need a different sharing tool.

    I understand that some educational institutions prefer closed systems as a way of protecting their clients. Since I work mainly with adults, I’d rather help them learn to use what privacy tools are available for mainstream internet services.

    By the way, I think Facebook’s privacy tools are top-notch. I like the way it allows me to so individualize who gets access to what. While some virtual drive / data hosting sites also do this (e.g. MSN’s Skydrive), Facebook seems like the privacy leader among social networking sites.

  2. > not all Facbook applications allow data to be exported. but need this be a overriding reason why Facebook should be avoided?


  3. Ben Toth said

    I don’t like the phrase at all. Firstly it’s one of those phrases which gives the impression of being meaningful but in practice doesn’t bear too much analysis. Secondly, walled gardens were a pretty clever Victorian technology for creating micro-climates in order to boost food production (, so it seems a shame to use the term in a negative way. Finally, all gardens have walls of one sort or another – an un-walled garden wouldn’t be a garden. So the phrase is a tautology.

  4. We’re doing a project in our university library to get our content in the users’ space. I’ve put “creating a Facebook Ap.” waaaay down on the list because of the “walled garden” aspect. We’ll do it, but just not as early as we did our Google gadget or provide embeddable code for our students to add a library search box where they want.

    By the way, I think the recent change to the Facebook video platform – which allows the user to upload a video to Facebook and then embed it for public viewing outside Facebook – may be indicate a bit of experimentation with the usual “lock out” approach ??

  5. I think this a good visual explanation of a walled garden of the commercial variety:

  6. Amanda said

    I agree whole-heartedly with Ben – walled gardens are fantastic things (I’m currently watching A Victorian Kitchen Garden as a form of winter escapism). The whole point of them was to create produce which then left the garden and was consumed outside it – so the analogy is a nonsense.

  7. Ben Toth said

    Just one more thing I meant to add to my original comment. It’s easy to get things in and out of real world walled gardens. The one I know has 3 separate entrances.

    I would put the phrase walled garden in the same class as the term ‘beauty parade’ when used to describe supplier selection. When I hear the term used (as I did last week in a UK University IT group) it tells me something, but not what the user intended!

  8. […] on Christmas day. But lets leave the moral simplicities to the past .  And remember that as Kathryn Greenhill recently pointed out on this blog “… the recent change to the Facebook video platform – which allows the […]

  9. The comments kinda of reflect the problem with the term “walled gardens”, which has become emotive. In the mobile environment they are often highly restrictive and can lead to a lot of confusion on the user part – which has to be bad and because they are so cut off can be bad for innovation as well.

    The problem is I don’t think you can say walled gardens – good or bad because in reference to this discussion they are just a technique. Its what they consequently used for that may become problematic.

  10. Max Norton said

    I like Ben’s definition of a walled garden: “a pretty clever Victorian technology for creating micro-climates in order to boost food production.” However I disagree with his conclusion that this weakens the analogy – isn’t maximising revenue from careful control a restricted environment one of the main aims of internet and mobile walled gardens?

    Lets stretch the analogy even further – Ben also pointed out that real world walled gardens may have multiple entrances. So too can digital walled gardens – there may be restrictions but rarely are these digital walled gardens actually prisons.

    After some dithering, I recently decided to purchase an iPhone over the gPhone. Despite the hyperbole over “jailbreaking”, the iPhone/iTunes/appstore environment resembles much more a managed walled garden than a repressively restrictive prison. There are a number of doors and the walls are scalable – I have native over the air synchronisation with GMail – and now Google Calendar and Contacts to the iPhone too through a nifty service called Nuevasync. The managed ecosystem of the iTunes AppStore also provides for an incredible richness and diversity of apps that have me even more connected on a mobile device than I’d hoped for.

    From my point of view as a user, the restrictions of the Apple walled garden are far outweighed by the benefits of the quality and surprising diversity of it’s produce. It seems that many developers quite like it too: When Ted Duzuiba wrote in The Register that the AppStore is “a classic protection racket” the number of comments that disagreed was a revelation given the normally anti-Apple sentiment usually encountered in the comments section of that site.

    The more I think about it the more I like the environmental analogy of a walled garden. There are all sorts of gardens out there – some well managed and fairly open – others little more than concrete slabs with broken glass topped walls.

    I’d have to agree with Stuart that to leap to judgement just because something can be described as a walled garden is hasty. While my instinct is towards openness I try to be pragmatic about these things and where I feel there are gains to be had in using “walled garden” solutions I’ll use them.

  11. […] has been described as a walled garden, but following a recent announcement that users can download their own data we found […]

  12. […] we see similar changes happening with Facebook? Back in December 2008 I asked Just What Is A “Walled Garden”? – a post which generated interesting discussion on the pros and cons of walled gardens, with […]

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