The Self-Destruction of Walled Gardens

We talk a lot these days about the open web and rant about how platforms such as Medium are working against it. To some extent this is all true — the rise of platforms has certainly made the web feel more closed than it did 10 years ago.

However, avoiding these platforms is not the answer.

To most consumers, there’s a real advantage in using a platform like Medium instead of figuring out how to build their own solution. And from their point of view, there's little risk. John O'Nolan talks about this in hisrecent post:

Mainstream, casual consumers will always be attracted to what is easiest, pretty and cost-efficient. And there is nothing wrong with that.

Sure, you can make predictions and point out how you don’t control your content and Medium can put advertising on it at any time. But until they actually do anything like that, predictions are just hearsay. Nothing has happened yet to break user trust. So why immediately default to distrust?

Closed networks like Medium are prevalent for casual bloggers because open alternatives suck for this use-case. If you just want to write something that looks good and can easily be shared with no professional agenda, you shouldn't have to go through the hassle of deploying an application and an entire server.

I agree with this — particularly the last bit. The fact is Medium has enabled more people to contribute to the web. Platforms solve a real problem. Consumers should use them. But for the sake of the open web, platforms like Medium have a responsibility to become open.

Here's what an open platform looks like:

  • Makes it easy for users to leave with their content
  • Provides tools to make that content accessible again

If someone leaves a platform and can't immediately host a navigable version of their content elsewhere, it's not an open platform. I can think of exactly two reasons a platform wouldn't want to become open:

  1. Technical challenges make it hard
  2. Being open is perceived as being bad for business

The first reason is more of an excuse, really. It's easier than ever to create open platforms and give someone the power to easily host their own content. If being open was a priority, the Medium team could make it happen.

If the first reason is an excuse, the second is complete nonsense. In fact, with a long-term view, being a closed platform is in fact bad for business. Dave Winer makes a compelling case for this in hisrecent post:

Tech is cyclic. First there was an open platform, then silo-makers were able to build something higher level by foreclosing on the openness. Then they stagnate because big companies get stuck in the Way Things Always Have Been, and the users get skilled, a new generation comes along and they see how to make progress outside the silo and enough people use the new open system so it gains traction. It’s always more exciting than the stale corporate silos, so for a while they blossom, until the cycle repeats.

Closed platforms are doomed to the same fate. Being closed is great at first; it gives a platform ultimate control. But the beautiful walled garden soon becomes an echo chamber, masking the platform's increasing irrelevance until it's too late.

I firmly believe that giving users an easy exit strategy is a great catalyst for long-term success. If 10% of a platform's user-base leaves after launching a controversial feature, that's immediate feedback. Whereas Medium would have slightly fewer articles written or more complaining than usual, an open platform would feel the pain and could adapt. Walled gardens make it too easy to ignore user feedback because there's less pain.

WordPress

Dave Winer recentlytweeted that instead of posting to Medium we should post to Tumblr or WordPress.com. I fail to see how those two are more open, but yes let's talk about WordPress.

I have quite a lot of respect for Matt and what the WordPress community has created. It's empowered more contribution and created a more democratic web in the process. Great.

But unlike its open-source counterpart, WordPress.com is not open. As far as I know, there's no easy way to move a blog from WordPress.com onto a standalone server. The best free option they provide is a content export feature, but you're on your own to setup WordPress.

The WordPress platform does offer a "Guided Transfer" service in exchange for a $129 fee. Why can't they automate this process and then make it free? I imagine it's one of the two reasons we discussed earlier, though I'd love to be wrong.


Platforms like Medium and WordPress.com have empowered millions to contribute to the web, but they've dropped the ball on ensuring that these contributions exist well into the future.

This is a missed opportunity.

My team and I are working on an open platform built around our open-source web framework. When someone creates a website on our platform we'll let them export not only their data, but a bootable version of it. Eventually, this feature will also provision a server on a VPS provider (such as DigitalOcean) and move their code to it.

As a community we've spent years fighting vendor lock-in with open-source software. And by now open-source is nearly standard practice. It's about time we fight for open platforms.