Internet.org is a Facebook-led initiative that offers people in developing countries free mobile access to basic web services (Curtis 2015). Despite its philanthropic intentions, Internet.org has been criticised for building a “walled garden” in which users are confined to selected websites approved by Facebook and local ISPs (Walsh 2015).
There is a concern that users, satisfied with their free access to this enclosed digital domain, may never move to the ‘real’ Internet and enjoy the privileges of freedom of expression, security, privacy and innovation – the principles of net neutrality (Post 2015). However, Bruce Sterling, a renowned US futurist and science fiction author, argues the ‘real’ Internet does not exist. Rather, vertically integrated data empires referred to as ‘stacks’ have independent ecosystems with their own rules and operating systems (Webstock 2013). Instead of being free, flourishing Internet citizens, users are “livestock” trapped in the data mines of these stacks (Webstock 2013).
In this way, even if people in developing countries upgrade to paid Internet services, they will continue to be exploited, monetised and controlled by the “private castles of cyberspace” (Webstock 2013). After all, the livestock can never completely escape the traps of the garden walls. At the same time, however, we should be fortunate to have restricted access than no Internet at all.
There is a belief that Twitter is following Facebook down the walled garden path, becoming a closed ecosystem disconnected to the open web. This is evident through Twitter’s native image hosting and native video hosting that lures its “livestock” to spend more time in the stream and less time clicking out to other image-hosting sites. This creates a walled garden where interactions take place primarily on Twitter and gives users less of a reason to venture out onto the wilds of the Web.
While Twitter may indeed be trying to build its own private castle or skyscraper stack, I do believe that its vertical integration is a fundamental advantage of the service. Twitter allows strong niche communities to form around shared interests that is not available on the open, decentralised web. This relates to the long tail power distribution law, in which a small number of “hits” such as Grumpy Cat and Lil Bub dominate at the head of the demand curve, followed by a huge number of niches in the tail. Twitter has made it easier to find these niches and allows cat owners to have a dedicated space to celebrate cats. This form of community-building is enabled through Twitter’s public conversations exemplified in the range of hashtags utilised by users including #caturday, #ItsACatThing and #CatBoxSunday.
Social media guru Graham Todd describes Twitter as a “…cocktail party with an open invitation”. This is due to the ability to flow in and out of conversations and meet new people all the time that is not as easily achieved on Facebook, a more personal and closed ecosystem. Indeed, Twitter has allowed me to connect and build relationships with cat owners across the globe who are driving engagement with my content and who can potentially become ‘ambassadors’ for encouraging cat adoption. Without Twitter’s “livestock” and level of openness and sharing, I would not have been able to achieve such exposure and engagement. For cat enthusiasts, Twitter is a cyber-utopian dream!
Curtis, S 2015, ‘What is Internet.org and will it really come to Europe?’, Telegraph, 15 April, accessed 6 September 2015, <http://www.telegraph.co.uk/technology/facebook/11537985/What-is-Internet.org-and-will-it-really-come-to-Europe.html>.
Post, D 2015, ‘Facebook, Internet.org and the net neutrality bugaboo’, Washington Post, weblog post, 17 August, accessed 6 September 2015, <https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/volokh-conspiracy/wp/2015/08/17/facebook-internet-org-and-the-net-neutrality-bugaboo/>.
Walsh, S 2015, ‘Internet.org: Human Rights and Vertical Integration in a Digital Era’, Global Partners Digital, weblog post, 8 June, accessed 6 September 2015, <http://www.gp-digital.org/gpd-update/internet-org-human-rights-and-vertical-integration-in-a-digital-era/>.
Webstock 2013, Webstock ’13: Bruce Sterling – What a feeling!, online video, 15 February, Vimeo, accessed 6 September 2015, <https://vimeo.com/63012862>.