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  • Writer's pictureChelsea Rustrum

How Digitally Walled Gardens Ruin Society

Recorded 3 years ago, pre-pandemic

I knew that this post was important to write. At the time, I felt strongly that it was too late. And weeks after, I moved out of the U.S. And then the pandemic happened. And so many other things...

While AI is scary on the one hand (from and economic and safety perspective), having an internet of internets, freeing information could be a really good thing.

Search should not be a walled garden, nor should social media applications. In fact, we should not have applications at all. What we really need are protocols, languages, and networks of networks to connect information in real time in the best, most intelligent way possible.

This is starting to happen.

And I see the beginning of the end of search as we know it.

And this gives me hope that we can build society around the information we recall and source from super intelligence that's resourced by unlimited information, instead of bought and paid for information that may or may not serve us.

We can't go on as we have. We are silently annihilating our freedom by handing over our attention to a limited number of shops that we go to as a source of truth, as a source of meaning, as a source of generating the story of our lives.

If the pandemic showed us anything, it's this!

For context, this was written 3 years ago, on November 19, 2019

Is Google search a walled garden? Slowly closing us off, limiting our interactions & choices I’ve been searching for any and everything since the late 90s. From Yahoo! to Excite, Magellan, Infoseek, AltaVista, Dogpile, Metacrawler, Ask Jeeves, and eventually Google — they all did something a little differently. And Google indexed faster, mapping everything together in a way that just worked. There was no need for any other search. One by one, the others became graveyards. But something changed. It’s as if I’m stuck in a shopping mall with the same a handful of choices — when what I really want is access to the superhighway of minds, to the serendipity engine, and the interconnected, free web that will teleport me to places I hadn’t yet imagined — To mom and pop crafters on the other side of world, bloggers who reveal the true texture of their lives, and networks that lead to deeper connection in the analog world. Here are a few things that I’ve noticed have changed: unless using exact topic strings, I end up in a news sandbox with articles from Forbes, Wikipedia pages, Quora, and the latest news — When doing multiple searches for the same thing, using very different queries, the same 50 results show on top 5 pages, in a varied order. Plus, smaller blogs, websites, and ecommerce retailers are difficult, if not impossible to find unless I search by exact name rather than by topic or product. And these are just a few of the ways I can easily name. In this post, I will show you how Google (and along with it our access to the internet) has slowly, almost insidiously moved toward being a walled garden — and give you tips on how you can turn the true power of the world wide web back on. The Walled Garden What is a walled garden? — AOL was a walled garden. When AOL internet was first offered to consumers, you could only communicate with other people who paid for AOL service — there was no email or protocol layer connecting the world wide web (yet). A walled garden is a system that’s self referential and has a particular agenda to keep you confined within the fences of the system. While Google seems like a public utility of sorts, you probably spend a fair amount of time interacting with the increasing limitations of it — missing out on the depth and breadth of information that exists or would exist if it showed up in your results.

And it it’s not just users that are missing out — small businesses must close their doors if they can’t be found. And many of them have.

According to the Small Business Administration, “Small businesses currently represent 98 percent of all businesses in the United States and they generate nearly 64 percent of all net new jobs in this country.” But that’s changing too. Over 70% of internet traffic is now on Google and Facebook — and both companies are responsible for 90% of the ad industries annual growth. While this ZDNet article from 2011 is full of opinions, scattered with facts — Google started by ‘cleaning’ up search results, which included so-called link farms. But realistically, the result of this was keeping people on their site and partner sites, creating more revenue possibilities through AdWords (Google keyword ads in search) and AdSense (Google advertising network). Part of the reason they’ve been able to continue down this path is that their targets for removal or de-ranking have included small businesses — people that don’t have a lot of financial resources to fight the lobbying budgets of Google. And for the average person, search hasn’t obviously started to degrade until now. What’s interesting about this topic is that those who have been involved in search engine optimization and following algorithms are the most in sync with the changes. Rand Fishkin’s, (the founder of and an early search engine optimization pioneer) agrees:

“Google started out as a search engine that helped users quickly find the information they needed. It’s since gone from directing people to content to directing traffic inwards to itself.”

And Jonathan Tepper, author of the best-selling book, The Myth of Capitalism recently published an article titled: “The Death of the Internet” says:

“If you had to choose a date for when the internet died, it would be in the year 2014. Before then, traffic to websites came from many sources, and the web was a lively ecosystem. But beginning in 2014, more than half of all traffic began coming from just two sources: Facebook and Google. ” And Tepper expands to reveal: “Even though competitors like Yelp might have superior local reviews, Google Reviews are given preferential placement in search results. Even though shopping comparison websites like Foundem in Europe might offer better results, Google can effectively blacklist them. Increasingly, Google offers snippets and previews of Wikipedia and Getty Images. Traffic to these websites has subsequently collapsed. Far from directing users to other sites, Google today starves content creators of traffic.”

Tim Berners-Lee, the grandfather and creator of the world wide web (arguably one of the most important protocols of our time, which gave us the free and open web) — explains why all of us should care:

“Why should you care? Because the Web is yours. It is a public resource on which you, your business, your community and your government depend. The Web is also vital to democracy, a communications channel that makes possible a continuous worldwide conversation. The Web is now more critical to free speech than any other medium.” - Tim-Berners Lee

Facebook is in on the action too

It’s not just Google that’s the problem. Remember the Facebook supported internet — otherwise known as Well, 100 million people are now connected, but it’s a fully walled garden. People don’t have access to the internet, they have access to Facebook and several other American centric brands, but not to an internet of freedom where anyone, like local businesses can create websites and thus growth in their own lives. AJ Dellinger of Gizmodo in his piece titled “100 Million People are Connected to Facebook’s Walled Garden Internet” writes:

“Citizen media and activist group Global Voices pointed out last year that Facebook’s Free Basics often falls woefully short of providing sufficient access to the internet for many of the users it serves. The organization found the service primarily highlights sites from American companies rather than local ones and often fail to provide services in native languages.” You know when you’re on a flight and the airline will only let you access their shopping portal, but nothing else? That’s a good analogy for how Facebook Free Basics (formerly known as operates. Want your website to appear on Free Basics? The only way it will appear is if you submit your website to be included.

And it’s not just the Facebook “free internet” that’s a problem — the capital “F” social network is built with obstructive walls.

“For years, Facebook lured media publishers to the platform, encouraging them to build audiences on Facebook and tap into its enormous user base for content distribution. Publishers listened — they devoted serious resources to content specifically for Facebook and put effort into growing their own Facebook audiences. Facebook originally started out as a way to make the whole web more social — with plans to compete with Myspace by creating an open ecosystem for apps. Then all of a sudden, Facebook started to change its algorithm to put an emphasis on friends and family as opposed to news and publisher content. Almost overnight, publishers with massive followings were out of business.”

Specifically, Facebook pages are basically tombstones now (originally created by content creators as alternative or even supplement to email list and/or website) — The only way to activate these audiences now is by paying for advertising on Facebook, which is cost prohibitive in many cases. What’s so bad about a walled garden? The thing about walled gardens is that private gardens are beautiful, free of junk or other distractions — a glorious experience, but that’s only at first. Once you’re trapped in the garden, the plants are dying, and the walls are so thick you can’t find your way out — it’s dangerous. Freedom is most visible when you see it start slipping away. The first way this happened was through reduced findability of:

Small business and mom & pop e-commerce

Independent blogs

There have been grave implications for global social cohesion and independent commerce, which has been replaced by more centralized marketplaces. These things have also limited the peer-to-peer serendipity and magic we experienced in the early days of the internet. This means less access to unique feelings, thoughts, and information — ultimately less connection to individuals and more connection to products, services, marketplaces, and news. While the perils of surveillance and censorship are not the focus of this post, these areas are central to the loss of free speech and this feeling of being in a walled garden that’s self-limiting. Here are a few of the ways that digitally driven walled gardens are dangerous for all of us:

  • Censorship of searches, data, news, and communications

  • Digital manipulation of thoughts and feelings

  • Limited data privacy and ownership

  • Monopolistic practices and governance

  • Election tampering (see Cambridge Analytica)

  • Surveillance

And if you add these things up over time, they lead to:

  • Loss of freedom

How did this happen? Google and Facebook didn’t start out a mission to close off the internet. In fact, Facebook’s business model was predicated on opening up the web to be more social by having an open apps ecosystem — and Google had the original promise of ‘Do no evil,’ which was believable and even palpable when the company was first budding. You could blame advertising. Algorithms. IPOs. Capitalism. Monopolies. Human behavior. Misaligned incentives. Growth at any cost. Acquisitions. But the reality is that these things happened slowly and over a few decades of advertising changes, algorithm updates, IPOs, massive growth, and acquisitions. The reality is that we needed some guardrails to make decisions about what content is valuable and what’s worth hiding. But somewhere in between — in the midst of good intentions and waves of social, cultural, and technological changes — advertising became the foothold of information and exchange. And with that, the incentives of society at large and behemoth companies became entirely misaligned. Decisions were made from the perspective of the bottom line growth, protection, and closing off networks verses opening them — because up to a point, that seemed to be the right thing. It’s no longer the right thing. Not for society. Not for individuals. Not for the internet. Not for the world. Not for small businesses. Not for information. Not for education. Not for freedom at large. In another post, I will zoom in on the exact updates that closed Google in, but for now I’ll elude to a few now: There was an algorithmic reindexing in 2011, which reorganized everything and limited distribution of blogs, directories, and other sources of useful information, followed by blog search being removed, followed later by RSS reader being deactivated. In a sense, you can blame both Google and Facebook for the death of blogs. It’s not that people stopped enjoying writing and posting photos — nor that this all got transferred to social media, but rather that the information they were sharing lost foothold on distribution channels (i.e. people couldn’t find or discover them any longer). Right around the time that blogs stopped getting Google traffic, Facebook pages were algorithmically de-ranked as well. These were the two major sources of traffic for all blogs. What can you do about it? You can vote with your clicks, searches, and time. Most people still use Google for search. This is an easy thing to change and there’s a real power in numbers if you switch and ask your friends to do the same. While I think we can do better than anything else that’s out there currently with regard to search engines, I’ve been testing DuckDuckGo the last few weeks and I’m already happier. The results are more obscure, especially for searches that aren’t on otherwise sterile topics. While the overall results lack, I feel like I’m experiences a different area code on the internet. Of course, that’s probably because they’re not following me around and giving personalized results according to location, gender, previous searches, and what they think I’ll like. And if you use DuckDuckGo, you’ll be in good company too. They hit 30 million queries per month at the beginning of 2019. Why? Because they do a few things differently, which gives you access to more information (hint not a walled garden): - They don’t track you - They don’t police or censor your results based on who are - They don’t read your email - They don’t have ads DuckDuckGo queries in past 9 yearsOther ways to get out of the walled garden

  • Use Firefox or Tor, not Chrome — this way Google cannot track all of your movements and base results on previous activity.

  • Support and use the Internet Archive and EFF — they are supporting, protecting, and and in the case of the Internet Archive, indexing the internet, information, books, games, and movies.

  • Use your own email server, not Google mail — This way Google search cannot read your email or know your motivations.

  • Create individual logins instead of using Facebook or Google accounts — by only linking the information you provide, you will not be sharing all of the data of your preferences, age, location, email, etc. with everywhere you shop or interact online .

  • Support policies that give people an option of what search engine to use — DuckDuckGo found that the default option given to Android users creates an artificial inflation of 300–800% for Google.

  • Be the entrepreneur who creates a version of Open ID that actually works and is widely used — Identity should be owned by users not by a social network.

  • Delete social media accounts (apparently one in five already have for the sake of privacy)

What tools do you use to experience the depth, breadth, and freedom of the internet?

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