May 1, 2012

Walled gardens

Ashgrove walled garden, roadside view. Kilwinning, North Ayrshire, Scotland (from Roger Griffith)

In the beginning, online networks and platforms were largely separate, walled off from one another. In the California state university computing system that I remember from my youth in the 1970s, it was a big deal that the diverse campuses were linked and that certain operations were possible between the systems - truly useful stuff like directory searches for new versions of text-based Star Trek programs. When the first chat application was introduced and became popular, it was banned at the Los Angeles campus because it used too much bandwidth.

Later platforms like CompuServe, AOL and others I have long since forgotten - as well as many old corporate systems - had their own walled-off e-mail systems. Connections to the Internet eventually killed off most of these.

Today's business networking platforms such as LinkedIn and XING and social media such as Facebook also have private messaging systems that do not co-exist well with the wider world of Internet communication. Even with notifications set, forwarded messages are often difficult to recognize as important in the flood of spam these platforms typically generate. As a result, over the years a number of potentially interesting business prospects have slipped by because I didn't notice the private request for a quotation on XING. Or some colleague or other person feels insulted because months go by without a response to mail on the platform or to a "connection request" of some sort.

I don't worry about the lost business; my usual contact information is easy to find, and it is typically on those sites as well. Not everyone camps out on LinkedIn or Facebook 24/7; many have other commitments and ongoing business that make it impractical to "check in" with great frequency. I do see value in these platforms and use them to communicate with some friends and former coworkers, but I never do so expecting a quick response. If I want that I use real e-mail or pick up the phone.

The phone? Yes, indeed. Years ago I recall being attacked on a public portal by some troglodyte translator who was offended by my suggestion that the telephone system still has a role to play in business. But e-mail is not the reliable medium many believe it is, and after some of my old addresses (one in use for nearly 20 years) were used by impersonating spammers, my e-mail messages often landed in spam folders or disappeared into The Void. Despite its reach and apparent openness, the Internet is in many ways just another sort of walled garden, one rather neglected in parts and full of traps and hazards, and to get where we want or need to go, we must often engage with the wider world, the real world.

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