Blooming walled gardens are casting a shadow on the openness of the web
A view from Russell Davies

Blooming walled gardens are casting a shadow on the openness of the web

When I started writing this column, around seven years ago, we lived on a different internet, based on different assumptions. I hadn't really noticed that - or paid attention to the effects - until Google closed Reader last week. Here's why this should matter to you and why it's not just a nerdy concern for old-school internet utopians

The internet we used to have was built on interoperability. The basic idea was that anything could link to anywhere and many of the interesting technologies that grew from the original web were about increasing that interconnection; they were designed to make it easier to take content from one place and use it elsewhere. There was a common-sense, general assumption that sites such as AOL failed because they were "walled gardens" – self-contained sites that didn’t connect to the open web and tried to keep their users in one place (all the better to monetise them).

Facebook has, for now, overturned that assumption. It’s effectively a walled garden, but it’s a massive one – big enough that people have to deal with it – and it has forced its competitors to start building some walls. Twitter used to be a joy for developers and experimenters – you could build all sorts of services on the openness of its platform. You’d be a fool to do that now. Google used to be equally committed to that friction-free interoperability, but that seems to be changing.

For commercial reasons, large media businesses should be supporting open, non-proprietary protocols

RSS was one of the basic, elemental, connective technologies. Those of you of a certain age will remember it – RSS was how we used to follow blogs. It let you create a "feed" of content and stick it somewhere else. Google Reader was the biggest and best way to follow those feeds – millions of people used it to follow millions of blogs, and all sorts of other streams of content and data. Google closed it last week. It’s not clear why, but the suspicion of many is that Google is focused on building its own version of the walled garden – Google Plus.

Why should you care? Because you and your clients will get stuck in these walled gardens too. You’re being forced to choose which you’ll work with, where you’ll put your content, on which platforms you’ll build your sites and services. That used to be easy – you built your services on the web and interlinked to everything else. It’s not that simple any more. So, purely for ravenously commercial reasons, large media businesses like yours should be supporting open, non-proprietary protocols like RSS. We need to keep the alternatives alive and flourishing.

Russell Davies is a creative director at Government Digital Service