Future Tense

The Rise of the Digital Walled Gardens

The future of the Internet isn’t Facebook. It’s micronetworks.

Viber, WhatsApp, WeChat, and Kakao.
Is “one network for all” really such a feasible (to say nothing of desirable) project?

Illustration by Slate. Logos by Viber, WhatsApp, WeChat, and Kakao.

If you ask Indonesians about their online habits, you’ll notice something strange. Three in 10 will say they’ve used Facebook. But from the same 10, only two will say they use the Internet.

Researcher Helena Galpaya’s study is a stark reminder of the way 1 billion people are set to come online over the next decade—not as part of some organic, empowering process but rather via “walled gardens” run by corporate tech giants like Facebook, whose Internet.org initiative offers a scaled-down version of the Web for free in order to hook the developing world to its platform.

Facebook has now claimed about one-sixth of the planet in its user base, making it the largest single communications network in history. It also has more users than the population of China. The company is, along with Google, perhaps the most powerful expression of Western soft power since Hollywood: It seeks to bring the world under its comforting blue banner. The company is turning its mobile Messenger service into a platform that can host other apps within it, thus making it unnecessary to click away. It plans to bring connectivity to remote communities by means of remote solar-powered drones, making it an essential part of 21st-century infrastructure. See that plane overhead? You just got Wi-Fi. Welcome to Planet Facebook. 

But wait. Is “one network for all” really such a feasible (to say nothing of desirable) project? For all Facebook’s apparent dominance, the social-networking future may turn out to be somewhat less linear as website-based platforms give way to more adaptive mobile technology. The phenomenal rise of messaging apps over the last few years has already given them a collective presence that dwarfs that of Facebook. According to market research company Flurry, the 10 biggest apps—including giants like KakaoTalk, Viber, and WeChat—now boast an astonishing 3 billion combined users across the world. WhatsApp alone has 700 million users, more than double that of Twitter, and handled more than 7 trillion messages last year. Here, rather than the traditional social networks, is where the world’s chat time is increasingly spent.

But look beyond the numbers and we see a deeper shift. Facebook’s mission (both corporate and civilizing) is to create a kind of Flat Earth map of the planet, a vision of a world in which everyone corresponds to one, easily defined identity. No wonder, then, that some of the most popular messaging apps steer rapidly in the other direction—away from “transparency” toward anonymity, as in the examples of Yik Yak or Whisper; toward powerful cloaking and encryption, as with Telegram, whose backer Pavel Durov confidently offered $200,000 to whoever could crack its code, or toward the (purportedly) self-destructing messages that made Snapchat big news. Cloak’s co-creator and BuzzFeed luminary Chris Baker told the New Yorker, “platforms that enable ephemeral, private and very loose moments are starting to become hugely mainstream.” There is, of course, a danger that some of these trend-setters may be as short-lived as the messages they send—one anonymity-granting app, Secret, recently closed—but the popularity of cloaking and enhanced privacy in general suggests a growing disillusionment with giant corporate McNetworks.

The idea that we can all enjoy a single, “open” identity is somewhat blinkered. In fact, many might have excellent reasons for opposing such openness—those living under tyrannical regimes or involved in dissident movements. Take last year’s Hong Kong protests. Demonstrators gathered around the Firechat app, which allows users to connect to one another without requiring a cellular or an Internet signal. It relies on a technology called mesh networking, wherein a peer-to-peer cluster of smartphones are daisy-chained to form a separate Bluetooth network “off the grid.” Its utility as an activism tool is obvious—in addition to Hong Kong, the app has been employed in protests in places like Taiwan, Egypt, and Iran. When the government can shut down the mobile networks, access to social networking sites, or even the Internet, a tool like Firechat, with genuinely clandestine organizational potential, seems like a dream come true for hacktivists. Last year Firechat’s developer, Open Garden, announced 1,800 FireChat groups had been started in Iran. It’s important to note that such temporary, unprotected infrastructure is not a cure-all for activists in search of anonymity: FireChat, for example, has troubling security issues that may allow messages to be intercepted. But mesh networking is still a young technology, akin to the Web 20 years ago, so it’s not unreasonable to expect that more secure methods will follow (Firechat’s founders announced last year they are working on encryption and more recently on widgets to plug network “holes.”)

And such “self-assembly” networks are gaining increasing prominence elsewhere. Journalists are already creating their own walled gardens for reasons of privacy rather than profit, employing air-gapped computers, the Tor-based encrypted submissions system Secure Drop, or virtual private networks to evade prying eyes. In the midst of political unrest in 2013, when Twitter and Facebook were blocked, Turkish people turned instead to apps like Zello, which effectively transforms a smartphone into a walkie-talkie, and Hotspot Shield’s VPN to record protests and avoid surveillance.

We might see it all as part of a groundswell against Facebook’s colonial project—a reaction to one country networking the world, and doing so on such authoritarian, heavily monetized terms. It challenges the casual assumption that what works in the United States will also work in, say, Myanmar or Tehran, where real names and “open” networking may actually mean brutal government surveillance or being forced to friend dictators. Marginalized communities worldwide are turning away from Facebook’s company’s draconian policies on real names and its somewhat conservative tendency to see any provocative art as porn. Concerns are growing too about its collusion with authoritarian regimes. But while brave micro-networks disrupting Planet Facebook may make a romantic narrative, it would be wrong to see all this purely as a reaction to Silicon Valley’s imperialism—a case of “the rest versus the West.”

For a start, there’s nothing uniquely “Western” about Facebook. After all, other countries have their own giant networks—the “Chinese Twitter” Sina Weibo, or the VK network in the former Soviet republics—in an odd echo of 20th-century geopolitical fault-lines. Nor is Zuckerberg’s company particularly domineering over its users by general standards. Any criticism of Silicon Valley seems slight by comparison with the Great Firewall of China that produced Weibo’s censorship architecture. And censorship is just the start—recent research shows the Chinese government using social media as a “focus group” to gauge citizen opinion and therefore pre-empt unrest.

So what of the future? Most likely it will be a stew of giant networks, messaging apps, and “antisocial” platforms—dominated as much by Shanghai as by Silicon Valley. Facebook may add another billion users as it intends, but meaningful communication may be shifting elsewhere. The decentralized networks that made Zuckerberg’s company possible in the first place are giving birth to smaller, generative platforms like Synereo (a social network “owned by the people who use it”) that put private communication at their heart rather than corporate or governmental interests. Just as a kid in a Harvard dorm room thought of a way to link a circle of friends a decade ago, more people are now looking to bypass the visible Web altogether and, as Firechat founder Micha Benoliel puts it, “grow their own Internet.” Even under a giant like button, the Earth never looks completely flat.

This article is part of Future Tense, a collaboration among Arizona State University, New America, and Slate. Future Tense explores the ways emerging technologies affect society, policy, and culture. To read more, visit the Future Tense blog and the Future Tense home page. You can also follow us on Twitter.