You read comments, from time to time, dismissing a service because it’s a ‘walled garden’. And no further discussion seems to be needed. It’s a walled garden. Period.

Except the research community is expected to challenge received wisdom and to be prepared to challenge conventional thinking. So let me ask the question. What is a walled garden?

The entry in Wikipedia states that the expression “refers to a closed set or exclusive set of information services provided for users (a method of creating a monopoly or securing an information system)“. The entry goes on to state that the term “is in contrast to providing consumers access to the open Internet for content and e-commerce“.

The examples of walled garden’s provided include the original AOL Service (“AOL started its business with revenue-sharing agreements with certain information providers in their subscriber-only space“), many of the initial set of services provided on WAP and Apple’s iPhone service.

But the definition is related primarily to phone and mobile devices – there is no suggestion that a Web-based service can be a walled garden.

The service’s definition does however address a broader notion of a walled garden: “On the Internet, a walled garden is an environment that controls the user’s access to Web content and services”.

It is interesting that this definition is not judgmental. The entry explains that “AOL UK’s Kid Channel established a walled garden to prevent access to inappropriate Web sites” although the entry does goe on to describe how a more common use of a walled garden is to protect business revenue: “a common reason for the construction of walled gardens is for the profits they generate: vendors collaborate to direct consumer’s Internet navigation to each others’ Web sites and to try to keep them from accessing the Web sites of competitors“.

A walled garden then, may be established to protect members of a community. So if an educational institution installs software “to prevent access to inappropriate Web sites” it then will be providing a walled garden.

Similarly as the UK’s JISCMail has been established to support the UK’s higher and further education communities an has policies which restrict use by people outside this community, we might also regard JISCMail as being part of a walled garden.

But the term walled garden seems to be more commonly used in a derogatory fashion, especially when used in the context of social networking services. But is Facebook, for example, really a walled garden? And if it is, then how significant is this fact?

I’m assuming that the criticism of Facebook is based on the belief that you can add data to Facebook but you can’t get it out again. Such criticisms could also be applied to Apple with its iPhone service: applications can only be installed using Apple’s iStore service, unless you are willing to take the (possibly criminal) risk of ‘jailbreaking’ the device.  And recently I’ve read an article published in the Register which argues that Apple [is]  more closed than Microsoft.

The good news for Facebook users, though, is that there are ways in which you can use the service without facing such barriers, Unlike, say, the situation with mobile phones there don’t seem to be significant barriers to getting your stuff into Facebook. There are, for example, a variety of ways in which blog posts can be incorporated into Facebook. And many other Web 2.0 services (such as Twitter, Slideshare, ) also provide Facebook applications which provide the convenience of allow their services to be used within the Facebook environment. And the data held in such services can still be managed by the host service – this, for example, is the approach I take with the UK Web Focus blog, which is managed in the environment, but is also surfaced within Facebook.

But let’s be honest – not all Facebook applications allow data to be exported. but need this be a overriding reason why Facebook should be avoided? After all when, in August 2007, students made use of Facebook which was successful in forcing the HSBC to make a U-turn on its plans to introduce student charges (a story which was picked up by the BBC and  by many newspapers and bloggers) the important aspect was the exploitation of a popular communications medium. Job successfully done, many of the students who were involved would probably argue. And to suggest that they should wait until a social networking service which the twittering classes would prefer is to miss the point.

What do you think a walled garden is? And how should we respond (as individuals and, perhaps, as educators and policy makers) to the popularity of services which may (or may not) be classed as walled gardens?