Have Social Networks Killed the Web?

By Ryan Holmes | 2 years ago | No Comments

Image by Ruddington Photos.
Image by Ruddington Photos.

This post was originally published by HootSuite CEO Ryan Holmes on the LinkedIn Influencer blog.
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This July, Google quietly axed one of its most beloved and longest-running products, Google Reader.

Millions of users who depended on the popular RSS service to firehose their online content scrambled to adapt. But the deeper effect was more chilling: another nail in the coffin of the open web.

There was a time when the Internet stood for the idea that “any person could share information with anyone else, anywhere,” to quote the web’s founding father, Sir Tim Berners-Lee. Today, that notion is looking increasingly quaint. Without Google Reader, the days of RSS — a powerful way for any website to share content with the world — seem numbered. Meanwhile, mobile apps are another challenge to the open web — self-contained islands that lock off their data from the wider net.

Then of course, there’s public enemy number one: social networks. The primary beef with platforms like Facebook and Google+ tends to be that user information is effectively walled off from the rest of the Internet. The treasure trove of content posted and shared within Facebook, for instance, is largely invisible outside of Facebook. Google can’t crawl it. Only select services can tap into it.

Open web advocate Chris Saad sums up what seems to be a sad picture: “URLs are fading into the background, native mobile apps are all the rage and Facebook threatens to engulf the web into a proprietary black hole.”

Maybe it’s time to ask: Is the web as we know it about to be snuffed out?

If it can’t be monetized…

RSS Reader IconBehind all of this, of course, is money. Much of the commentary on the death of Google Reader mentions a critical fact: It’s awfully hard to monetize RSS. “RSS feeds allow viewers to keep up with websites without having to visit them at all,” explains computer science professor and tech writer Srikumar Venugopal. “[This] means a loss of page views that are essential for generating the advertising turnover of the website owner.” And herein lies a gritty, inescapable reality.

The beautiful sites we know and love, the apps we cherish and the social networks we frequent generally need to make money somehow. Usually, that’s through advertising. The longer we spend on their sites and the more information we share, the more money they make in the form of ad revenue. That’s in large part why they’re walling themselves off and hoarding our data.

In this respect, it’s no coincidence that the death of Google Reader corresponds with the rise of Google’s own social networks. As Wired’s Christina Bonnington points out, “No matter what Mountain View says about changing user habits, though, both Now and Plus do one thing: They keep you in Google’s world.” Of course, this is an industry-wide trend. Not just Google, but Facebook, LinkedIn and the other big networks are all gunning to become become true media properties. Just like traditional media outlets—from TV networks to newspapers — the more users they have and the better they hook those users, the more they can charge for ads.

This is something that keeps me up at night. As someone who grew up with open APIs and RSS, I have fond memories of when the net was a more open and less commercial space. There’s no doubt that freewheeling hacker culture was and is behind many of the Internet’s innovations.

As a tech entrepreneur, however, I know that innovation also depends in part on monetization. At the end of the day, money is a wonderful incentive—I wouldn’t be in business if I didn’t believe that. Plus, many of these walled gardens are generally nice places to hang out. To quote entrepreneur and Wired founder John Battelle, “The open web is full of spam, shady operators and blatant falsehoods . . . . In the curated gardens of places like Apple and Facebook, the weeds are kept to a minimum, and the user experience is just . . . better.”

My own company, HootSuite, was an effort to resolve some of these personal tensions. By allowing users to access nearly all of the major social networks from one site, I hoped to make it easier to share data and ideas between walled gardens. The demise of Google Reader and the progressive closing of the open web, however, makes me wonder if we’re reaching a dangerous tipping point.

Closing API gates: Sabotaging the real potential of the web?

At some point, this increasing bunker mentality of walling off users and their data will inevitably begin to impede real progress — the kind of exciting advancements that have made the web such a fascinating, growing and, yes, profitable space over the last decade. The question we have to ask ourselves is are we sabotaging the real potential of the web in the name of short-term profits and a better user experience?

The canary in the coal mine for me is the growing restriction of application programming interfaces, or APIs in tech-speak. APIs are sets of instructions that enable outside developers to interact with a particular platform. Incredibly handy tools like Yelp and Airbnb, for instance, exist because developers are able to tap into map APIs from the likes of Google and Apple. In this way, information from a single platform or data source can foster an entire flourishing ecosystem of linked apps.

APIs, in other words, are gates in the walled garden. They allow the wonderful content inside otherwise closed, proprietary spaces like Twitter and Facebook to get out in a controlled manner. This represents an elegant compromise between the open web of yesteryear, where information was shared freely and innovation flourished, and the more tightly controlled, monetized web of today, where profitability depends on keeping users and their data on your site.

The problem now, however, is that these gates are closing. In the past few years, major social networks have grown increasingly restrictive with their APIs. Once upon a time, for instance, Twitter prided itself on having an open API. The network’s own founder, Biz Stone, credited this approach as “arguably the most important, or maybe even unarguably, the most important thing we’ve done with Twitter.”

And in the beginning, thousands—if not millions—of apps were fed by Twitter’s gloriously open API. “This was the era of the mashup—taking data from different sources and scrunching them together to make something new and interesting,” writes web developer Jeremy Keith. “[If] you wanted to show content from one site or app on your own site or app, you could use a simple, documented format to do so . . . ,” notes his fellow technologist Anil Dash.

Image by Steven Tom.

In recent years, however, Twitter has aggressively tightened the reins on outside developers, restricting its API and wresting control of apps back from third parties. In the interest of keeping users on its site, the network has put a chill on the development of apps that could leverage its data in new and interesting ways.

Nor is it right to single out Twitter (who certainly hasn’t done anything wrong or hard to understand from a business perspective). This is another industry-wide movement. Facebook, for example, has done exactly the same about-face. Back in 2007, at the inaugural Facebook developers conference, Mark Zuckerberg proclaimed, “Right now, social networks are closed platforms, and today we’re going to end that.” True to those words, Facebook initially embraced nearly any developer who built apps on its platform. Less than 18 months after that conference, however, the network began closing the door, cutting off developers and revoking API access as it sought to bring more and more functions in-house.

Wake-up call: Users getting restless

Meanwhile, when it comes to sharing even basic data with each other, the big social networks are getting increasingly stingy. Even casual social media users have probably noticed the escalating tit for tat in recent months. After Instagram was acquired by Facebook in 2012, Twitter stopped letting Instagram users import their Twitter followers. Instagram retaliated by cutting off users’ ability to share photos on Twitter. More recently, Facebook has blocked users of Twitter-owned Vine from accessing their Facebook friends list on the app.

I want to be clear that I’m not advocating some kind of free for all, where anyone can have unrestricted, free access to Facebook’s or Twitter’s huge (and hugely valuable) data set. In the words of technology writer Marco Arment, “[the] bigger problem is that they’ve abandoned interoperability.” The big networks increasingly want to “lock you in, shut out competitors and make a service so proprietary that even if you could get your data out” it would be useless.

And users are getting more and more frustrated. “We simply want any app we use that is owned by either of you to interact seamlessly, the way they used to,” writes Mashable deputy editor Chris Taylor, in response to the Twitter-Facebook feud. “We’d just really like to see our Vine videos on Facebook and our Instagram snaps on Twitter.”

For all of the walled gardens out there, this sentiment should be a major wake-up call. Users will stick around and play nicely inside the garden — lending their data to the sites and their eyeballs to advertisers — only so long as it’s convenient for them to do so. When users feel too restricted, too manipulated or too isolated, they’ll begin to jump ship—no matter how beautifully the site or app is designed.

After all, we’ve been down this path before with another walled garden, which now lays in ruin. “[AOL] faded because users realized that the benefits of being inside its garden were far outweighed by downsides and that the open Internet wasn’t so bad, after all,” writes Gigaom’s Mathew Ingram. The enormous backlash to the decommissioning of Google Reader (a petition to bring it back already has 152,000 signatures) suggests that there is a growing minority of Internet users who resent the restrictions imposed by giant, proprietary sites that constrain the flow of data. More open APIs would provide needed gates to these walled gardens, allowing a freer exchange of information and spurring new wave of innovation—all without compromising the bottom line.

For more social media insight and to learn more about my company, follow HootSuite on LinkedIn.

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TheBigOne 5pts

And to think these self entitled children who feel everything should be handed down to them for free are now running our society and corporations like Google/Facebook.etc. 

Many of them don't know squat about economics and are given the businesses by their parents and run it to the ground.  I have seen the trend all too many times.

TheBigOne 5pts

This all stems from getting rid of moral values in the education system.  It started in the universities in the 1920s-40s and weeded its way thru the public schools system. Generally even with that there wasn't extreme rebellion until the late 60s thru 70s.   

The generation that made the internet possible were IT Tech programmers from the baby boom who are all now old and semi retired.    Now we have a new generation of ME ME ME!!! Self entitlement craze going on.

AlohaVid 5pts

The opening paragraphs do not recognize the way the data is now handled after the installation of fiber optics. In the beginning, the internet utilized the spaghetti of interlinked copper phone lines to create inter-connectivity amongst users which was indeed open to anyone anywhere but now these channels are all funneled through the faster fiber optic lines. Although data sharing is faster, this within itself  laid  the foundations for the gateways and area restrictions which also allowed government agencies to better monitor internet activity in the name of national security. This social networks including Google simply understood this concept and new infrastructure sooner than the average user and adapted accordingly. This is not a coincidence. 

In reply to the question, "Is the web as we know it about to be snuffed out?" Of course things will change. The internet has evolved a long way from days of bulletin boards and will undoubtedly change from what we see today. Expecting the internet to remain the same would also be an indicator of stagnation. The internet has always been a place of progressive ingenuity as it should always be.

Although money is a great incentive, it can also be an Achilles's Heel as related to true freedom of choice. As mentioned, we all know how TV, Newspapers and Radio advertising have been dominated by the wealthy.  Google's Adwords caters to this same model and is the choice of many independent web sites. What I do see is how these social platforms have eliminated my need for the independent web sites which makes the services like Hootsuite an invaluable tool to share with everyone simultaneously or only with some selectively. Ultimately, the power lies within the people's hands. Not everyone is well suited for the type of celebrity status associated with cross social network pollination but those who are carry huge clout which the social network platforms will continue to cater to. There presence can be directly associated with peak hours of operation and those people that follow them are who the social networks need access to for their own monetary gains. Closing those API gates completely would be like shooting themselves in the foot because the endorsement or criticism by the so called cross-social celebrity does have the power to sway their audience. After all, there is still no better advertisement than word of mouth, that is engrained into human nature. From what I have seen, downgrading the competitive conflict between Twitter and Facebook to merely a "feud " is a huge step away from the World War I once witnessed and survived.

Giving credit where credit is due, the social networks are responsible for a large percentage of the growth the internet has experienced which includes many people who have no other interest in the beginning except like my 80 year old parents who asked me to show them how to Email and Facebook. As I have seen with many others young and old, this is how the ween themselves into full blown usage that many of us consider everyday tasks. 

There are still ways to earn money but the methods are changing and constantly evolving. We must endeavor to pursue those avenues that will fit to the environment. What works today may not work tomorrow but this is the nature of the beast called technology.

Steven 5pts

Thanks Ryan, Good article and well observed trend, but an inevitable development since all social networks were created not from a social dream but from a control, power and money built culture. This culture setting brings a lot to many people, but has never been and will never be "social", that is still a big mistake people make. 

To let go of something is one of the most difficult things to do in life, but to see it grow is one the most beautiful things. We are witnessing again the everlasting battle between those who want to control and those who want to let grow!! 

rgds Steven

AceHoffman 5pts

In real life, walled gardens kill neighborhoods.  People who cloister themselves behind the walls of the Internet are experiencing only a tiny fraction of the real world.

Tupacalypse 5pts

@AlohaVid - Wow! You should definitely have your own website! That response was better written and more professional than this article!

TheBigOne 5pts

@Steven Ever wondered how Facebook Google Microsoft actually grew?  Hint. It was not luck but rather the payroll of the CIA to data mine behaviors. The internet before it was called the web was mainly for Department of Defense purposes in the 60s/70s in case Nuclear war threatened landline communication