Open vs. Closed Systems: A Shift Continues

The first online publishing that I did was back in 1994 (or so). I worked at a small company that put on conferences and trade shows. One of the guys I worked with called America Online one day and asked if we could set up a forum that would house information about our event, and they said yes. They didn’t even charge us anything (at first). They did send us a file, though: a great big document that explained how to use a fairly bizarre set of commands to publish content on our site. The system and the language was (for real) called Rainman, which (somehow) stood for Remote Automated Information Manager.

The basic idea of the Rainman was that you would log in to AOL and create an e-mail with an attachment. The attachment was the content that was going to be placed in your forum, and you put a bunch of text commands into the body of the e-mail. Send your e-mail off, and the system would process it. You would then get a message back (“You’ve got mail!”) telling you if everything worked or if there were any errors. I also was publishing content to CompuServe in roughly the same way, as well as AppleLink and eWorld (who remembers eWorld?)

Of course, all of this was pretty much blown to pieces by HTML and the Web. In what seemed like a blink of an eye, we moved away from publishing on closed systems and moved into the stormy waters of the Internet. We built far richer sites with greater reach on open standards like HTTP, HTML, and even FTP (even Gopher). We believed that the world needed to be open and cursed the limits of the walled gardens of online services.

Where has this open revolution led us? Well, has anyone created a Facebook Fan Page recently for their business or for one of their clients? Show of hands if you have created an iPhone app. We are running right back into systems that are closed and contained. The difference this time, though, is that we are benefiting mightily from the nature of those systems.

Facebook: Closed 2.0

Closed systems operate and exist differently from open systems in one key way: closed systems are engineered and owned by a single company. Open systems are engineered by groups of people and not owned by anyone. Generally speaking, the Internet (and technology in general) has always excelled when systems are left open, because the great imagination, work-capacity, and excitement of the crowd can be applied to making the system better. Closed systems have to rely on the resources of a single organization to execute work, as well as make good decisions about what should be done. (If you want to really understand the difference between closed and open systems, you need to read “The Cathedral and The Bazaar.”)

There’s a great benefit, though, of closed systems, for marketers. When you’re working within a closed system, you generally are well supported in your publishing efforts. That is, you generally aren’t starting from scratch when you create content. There tend to be tools and templates that allow you to get up and running fairly quickly, and sometimes with pretty rich experiences. Plus, you have an easily-addressable audience of people who have already opted in to the system itself. Your audience is already on this closed system and looking for things to do, versus open systems (like the Web itself), where people are floating around in totally unstructured ways. The problem, of course, is that you are limited in your abilities and your audience to what the owners of the system allow for, so the more innovative marketers have tended to stay away from closed systems.

But we are now getting a fresh set of systems that seem to have taken the best aspects of being closed and being open and blended them together to form a powerful way to reach and interact with consumers. Think about creating a page on Facebook; there are a whole list of closed-system type benefits, but without losing the power of open systems:

  • Quick and easy publishing (closed benefit). It takes almost no effort to create a Facebook Page. Certainly, more effort goes a long way, but to simply get a presence up on the system for your brand leverages a rich functionality platform to not only let you tell the world your story, but also interact and engage with your audience.

  • Deep analytics, built in (closed benefit). Because people have directly opted in to be a part of a closed system, the system owners can tell you a lot about their users. Having a Facebook Page lets you tap directly into that data as well.

  • Accessible to search (open benefit). The big challenge to closed systems is that your audience is limited to the people on the system. Not so with Facebook Pages, since search engines are able to crawl them and non-Facebook users can at least see the information.
  • Infinitely extensible functionality (open benefit). Because Facebook has built an API (define) that allows coders to develop new functionality on top of the core service, you are absolutely not limited in your imagination. There are tons of applications that can be added to your page and you are free to create your own as well.

Logged-In Lifestyle

The nature of the Web is shifting from free-floating sites that have no connection to each other to a matrix of services that mix and blend freely. To get the benefit of this new world, as a user, you need to be logged in, in some way. This is a dramatic shift and we’re just beginning to plumb the depths of what is possible. But, as we are seeing the benefits of systems, where you log in is not the walled garden of AOL’s past. Rather, it’s an interconnected set of value that you can leverage.

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