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The Internet: Bring Your V.I.P. Card to Get Online

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Once upon a time...

It wasn't too long ago that many media pundits felt that the Internet would tip the scales from the mass media-controlled world to an open, freer, world where any one individual could wield their own publishing power. The thought went that we would have a much more open media -- one where individuals exercised their democratic right to not only share what they were thinking, but to become a media entity unto themselves (The Huffington Post was a beacon in this argument).

More recently, Clay Shirky (author of the bestselling business books, Here Comes Everybody and Cognitive Surplus) summed this all up simply by saying that the concept of publishing has shifted from a complex business process to simply being a button. It's humbling to think of just how quickly the Internet and digitization of the publishing industry changed everything.

When business gets involved, everything changes.

When I first started blogging and podcasting (in 2003), the Internet was both an open and a closed environment. Back then, the majority of people still used one of the major ISPs and portals as their destination (think AOL, Yahoo, or whatever). These were known as "walled gardens" as they controlled the overall experience that consumers had. When people got more comfortable with the Web and browsing on their own, the beginning of blogs and message boards (which happened in parallel) were an indie-like fairground for independence.

People were publishing online journals and creating communities around very obscure areas of interest. Back then, I could have never imagined that thousands of people (each and every day) would be interested in my musings about the marketing and communications industry. If you take a step back and read the classic business book, The Cluetrain Manifesto, you'll note that the authors of that book (Rick Levine, Christopher Locke, Doc Searls and David Weinberger), were setting the stage for a world that was open, where markets were truly conversations, and people's content was just as (if not more) relevant than what we were getting from the traditional mass media.

As with all good (and open) things, when corporate America caught wind of the rising popularity of these channels, they swooped in. They tried to commercialize it and capture it for their own bidding.

Aren't we more open than ever before?

While people are sharing more personal information online than ever before (Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and online dating sites), we're also seeing a world where the dominant players are creating nothing more than what many see as another "walled garden."

It would be well-worth arguing that the newer channels (look to Facebook, Google or Apple for more clues) make the Internet portals of yesteryear seems like open source, when you start scratching beneath the surface to realize just how closed these environments truly are. Just last week, there were many indicators of this world getting more closed. We had Facebook launch their own app center. By forcing websites to build in-Facebook apps, the online social network is able to keep consumers locked in on Facebook, without ever leaving. Rumours also began to swirl that Apple would be announcing its own mapping engine at its next event and removing Google Maps as their default search for location. There are news announcements happening like this on a more frequent basis.

This doesn't feel like an open Internet.

For years, Apple has been mastering a "cradle to the grave" business strategy. By opening retail stores, they get consumers at the first stage of the purchase cycle and they keep them through the purchase, support (Genius Bar), and even the content that goes on the devices (think iTunes). If you look at how much time consumers spend on Facebook, you'll realize that it gobbles up the majority of their online experience, so having them add Facebook apps instead of searching on Google and heading to other websites, keeps them enraptured in Facebook's closed environment.

Part of this is a bigger/newer trend that we're starting to see: brands that are selling both products and services that are intertwined. An iPhone is useless without iTunes and the digital content to put on it. It's much easier to get trained on your iPhone by the people at Apple and buy your post-purchase care from them as well. The other major digital players are quickly following suit.

Is closed a bad thing?

While companies like Google may argue that closed is bad, it's important to realize that human beings seem drawn to closed environments -- especially for more nascent products and services. It's as if an open environment is "too open" that it create analysis paralysis for the average consumer. While early adopters love to tinker and push products to see what happens, the mass majority has an expectation that something is not only going to work, but that it's going to provide a great experience. Are brands like Google, Facebook, Apple and others really trying to keep consumers locked in? It seems like they are: simply to ensure a great experience.

Yet, with that great experience, many people are beginning to see the challenges of closed environments as well (control of data being one of the major issues). Just ask anyone who has an e-book reader and can't share and exchange books between platforms or even copy and paste components of the content for their own use.

We initially thought that the Internet was an open platform, but is it too closed? What do you think?