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The Robert Frost poem “Mending Wall” has an oft repeated line, “Good fences make good neighbors,” voiced by Frost’s neighbor as they mend the wall between their two properties. The idea, at least according to the neighbor, is that a degree of privacy may result in a more civil environment between two people living close together. This theory is the basis for the concept of walled gardens in media, particularly in various Internet communities.
A walled garden in simplest definition is a limited place to which only members have access. In cable television, you see a walled garden of sorts when subscribers purchase packages of channels. You are essentially restricted to the channels you order, and unless you decide to upgrade your package, you won’t get all channels available. Another example of the walled garden occurs when people purchase products like the iPhone®. Currently Apple® blocks users from purchasing any other phone connection service than that offered by its company. You can’t use Verizon® or any number of other services with your iPhone and are thus limited in access.
Early email programs often were walled gardens. Users could only email users of the same system. But as Frost mentions in “Mending Wall,” “ Something there is that doesn’t love a wall.” This clearly proved the case as email advanced, and instead of creating walls, email providers created connectivity between different email programs and providers so that people could reach almost anyone else with an email address, regardless of the service to which the other person subscribed.
Some early Internet Service Providers (ISPs), chief among them AOL®, like cable companies, offered specialized services and exclusive information to their subscribers only. You couldn’t participate in an AOL chat if you weren’t a member. This aspect of the walled garden often led people straight out of the garden to more accessible services, but there are arguably some aspects of privacy that are helpful
Current walled gardens include Internet sites like Facebook® and Flickr®. In Facebook, for example, people permitted to message you or view all your information are the people you invite. On the other hand, this privacy may be a little bit of an illusion, with the decision by such companies to allow searchbots to glean information from Facebook users. It suggests a transparency of the wall that people might want to be aware of when they post, just as they might not skinny dip in their backyard if they realized their fences were made of plexiglass.
Other walled gardens offer more privacy, and may be subscription only, or paid subscription only services. They may offer guarantees of not releasing your information to third parties. Some sites, for instance, are targeted toward safe searching or Internet play for kids.
Not only are these gardens walled but they may also be moderated to prevent sexual predators from addressing children. However, children still need to understand prior to using the Internet that giving out personal information essentially defeats any walls. It can be helpful to use the metaphor of a walled garden and ask a child if he or she would really think it safe to invite a stranger into their back or front yard.
There are those who rail against the walled garden of any type, but a more moderate approach is to suggest that occasionally limitations on service have a protective place. For those who prefer a presumption of privacy, it’s a good idea to evaluate just how high the wall and what safety measures are built in for your protection. Read terms and conditions agreements carefully to see if a walled garden environment truly protects you as you would like. This can also help you determine how much you may be limited in the scope of your activities from within the walls.