Walled Garden

Publish, like, and find: building an open and curated ecosystem

Most ecosystems such as app stores are either open or curated. But why can’t we have both? Well, we can — all you need is three verbs: publish, find, and like. That goes for technology and anything else.

Usually there are two options when you want to publish an app: publish it to something like the iOS App Store (where people will find your app, but Apple reviewers can deny your submission) or just put it on your website (where it’s easy to publish, but there’s no guarantee anyone will see it.) Not the greatest set of options.

Isn’t there a way to combine the strengths of both of these to make for the best possible experience for both publishers and consumers? I think there is. It’s called an open and curated ecosystem. Let’s take a look at:

  • What open and curated ecosystems are
  • Examples of open and curated ecosystems
  • What you need to make an open and curated ecosystem
  • Examples of these ecosystems beyond just technology

and see if we can discover something about the power of crowdsourcing, innovation, and the three verbs publish, find, and like.

Curated vs. open ecosystems

The iOS App Store and open internet, among others, are app ecosystems — places where apps can be published and found. And I think the big factors that differentiate one ecosystem from another are whether the ecosystem is open, where anyone can publish apps and whether it is curated, where the best apps rise to the top and users are assured quality apps. That’s the major difference between the iOS store and the internet at large, which I mentioned earlier.

Let’s look at examples of curated and open ecosystems and what differentiates them.

App stores: curated ecosystems

iOS 8 App Store logo
iOS’s App Store fits the “closed, but curated” model: Apple decides what is allowed to increase app quality.

App stores, like iOS’s app store, Google Play, the Amazon app store, and others are traditionally curated but not open. They’re called “walled gardens”, where reviewers carefully curate a list of the best products and users get to choose from between these. A parallel in the physical world is the bookstore, where the owner chooses a list of books that customers choose from.

Anyway, because app stores are curated, there are very few virus-filled or low-quality (according to the reviewers, at least) apps in the stores, since the store owners filter those out — and that’s great news for consumers.

Walled Garden
The “walled garden” model used by many app stores ensures that high-quality products are available, but it’s hard for outsiders to get in.

But these walled gardens aren’t open, making it hard for new developers to enter the marketplace. More ominously, a big corporation gets to control what users have access to. That might seem like a tinfoil-hat idea, but it’s reared its ugly head several times, notably when Google banned ad-blocking apps from its Google Play store a few years ago. This restricts free speech and hinders publishers.

So walled gardens like app stores are curated but not open; they’re good for consumers but not publishers.

The open internet: an open ecosystem

The internet at large, which I define as someone publishing an app only to their website, is the exact opposite: it’s open but not curated.

The internet is open because anyone with a website (which is more or less anyone who would want to publish an app) can publish whatever they want with nearly no restrictions. Openness is also great for freedom of speech, as literally anything can be published. Because there’s no barrier to entry and no limits on expression, openness is great for publishers.

Overgrown garden
The wide-open internet is a kind of “overgrown garden” — plenty of choice, but no way of finding anything or knowing what’s high-quality.

Meanwhile, the open internet is not curated. There’s no central authority that determines what goes on it and no unified place where all apps published on the open internet can be found. That’s bad for consumers for two reasons. First, it’s hard to find apps: even with today’s powerful search engines, there’s no way to find every, say, calculator app on the open internet — an app store like iOS’s would do that, though. Second, and more dangerously, dangerous content can enter the ecosystem, such as anonymous online drug trafficking. App stores would, I hope, ban this sort of thing.

The open internet, in contrast with the walled garden approach of app stores, is open but not curated, which is good for publishers but not consumers.

Can’t we have both open and curated?

On one side, we have app stores, which are curated (great for consumers) but not open (tough on publishers). On the other side, we have the open internet, which is open (good for publishers) but not curated (bad for consumers).

So here’s my question: why must we choose between open and curated? Why can’t we have both? Can’t we have both high-quality, trusted content and the ability to choose and distribute freely? Can’t an app ecosystem be good for both developers and consumers?

Enter open-source: open and curated

I think we can have both open and curated ecosystems — but for that, you have to turn away from conventional platforms and toward open-source.

Open-source: freedom of expression and quality software

Open-source is a philosophy that people should be free to use, develop, distribute, and modify software however they like. People publish software whenever they have an idea, and others contribute to the project to improve the software — or, if they feel they can do a better job, they make their own version of the software and take it a different direction.

Going back to the bookstore metaphor, if we had an open-source bookstore, customers could put their own books on the shelves or even copy and edit existing books to try to improve them. It’s a very exhilarating idea.

Open Source logo
The open source movement strives to make software publishable, usable, and editable by all.

So open-source has two goals: encouraging freedom of expression and creating the best software possible.

Sound familiar? That’s because it lines up with the ideas of openness and curation. That is, open-source is very compatible with both openness and curation. We just need to create an ecosystem that enforces this.

The rise of open-source ecosystems

The problem for many years, though, was that there were no centralized marketplaces of open-source products. The only way to find open-source software was to visit the project’s website. Outside word-of-mouth, there was no way of knowing what software was good or popular — or, indeed, of knowing what was out there at all. That’s open but not curated — in other words, no better than the open internet.

But recently we’ve been seeing many open-source marketplaces arising — places where anyone can publish and edit software, people can search for all kinds of software from one place, and the most popular software rises to the top of the charts and search rankings. And those, as we’ll see, are both open and curated.

GitHub: a model for openness and curation

GitHub Octocat logo
GitHub, a social coding platform, fits the “open and curated” model: anyone can publish, users can search, and the most popular products rise to the top.

For example, let’s look at GitHub, a website launched in 2013 that bills itself as the center for “social coding”. Developers publish repositories of source code, or computer instructions that can be run to create an app. Other developers can suggest edits to the code to improve it — or “fork” the repository and start developing an alternative version. People trying to find software to use in their projects can visit GitHub, search for and download relevant software, and star their favorite repositories.

As a result, the best products rise to the top of the “most starred” list and become some of the most-used software. (Ask any web developer what Bootstrap, Angular, and Node.js are and they’ll gush about them — those are the three most starred GitHub repositories of all time.)

So GitHub is both open and curated. It’s open because anyone can publish anything with little more than an account — a win for publishers. And it’s curated because there’s a centralized way for users to find products and filter out the best products — a boon to consumers. That combines the benefits of the open internet and app stores.

These open-source marketplaces are really exciting ways to promote freedom of expression, empower independent developers, satisfy customers, and assure quality. In other words, really good ideas.

Examples of open-source marketplaces

GitHub is just one of many up-and-coming open-source marketplaces. As you’ll notice from the founding dates, they’re pretty new, even by technical standards. Here are a few more open-source marketplaces you might have heard of:

  • The Firefox Marketplace (launched in 2013) provides open-source apps for Mozilla’s Firefox OS project, which promotes cheap, vendor-independent, web-first smartphones for developing nations. It’s a direct competitor to the walled garden app stores. Anyone can publish apps, yet anyone can find top-rated apps or rate apps they downloaded. It’s a win-win.
  • A slew of package managers for app developers, such as Node.js’s package manager, Bower, and Yeoman. These are tools that help developers find, install, and rate software modules (such as, say, a module that lets you post a Tweet.) Anyone with a GitHub account can publish packages, and users can find, star, and review packages from one spot.
Firefox marketplace logo
The Firefox Marketplace is another open and curated ecosystem, and an alternative to app stores like iOS’s or Android’s.

Benefits of open and curated ecosystems

What makes these open-source marketplaces, and open and curated ecosystems in general, so great for publishers and consumers? I think it’s because the openness and curation play off each other; each cancels out the other’s weaknesses.

Open ecosystems are great for publishers, but if you let anyone publish, dangerous or low-quality products will inevitably emerge. But because these ecosystems are also curated, users will ensure these bad products get downvoted so that only quality products are easily seen. That makes the marketplace safer for consumers.

Curated ecosystems are, conversely, great for consumers, but they can restrict publishers’ freedom of speech and ease of publishing. But because these ecosystems are open, anyone can publish, and products are rated by publishers’ peers, ensuring publishers as much freedom of speech as practically possible.

So open and curated ecosystems have all the benefits minus many of the drawbacks. So we should create them — but how?

The making of an open-source marketplace

So what makes an open-source marketplace like GitHub or the Firefox Marketplace? How exactly do these ensure openness and curation? I think there are two criteria:

  • To ensure an open ecosystem, you need to lower the barrier to entry for publishers. In GitHub, there’s a big, friendly “New Repository” button. The Firefox Marketplace has a similarly friendly “Develop Apps” button. There’s no review process, developer license, or fee, all of which you’d see in traditional walled-garden app stores.
  • To ensure a curated ecosystem, you need to provide a centralized location for product discovery — like a website. This location should help users find any and all relevant apps: GitHub, for instance, has a search bar. Furthermore, you should rely on users themselves — not a team of hired hands — to curate the product list for you. GitHub has a star button for each repository; the Firefox Marketplace lets users rate apps.

In catchier terms, all you need is three verbs: publish, find, and like. If your ecosystem lets users do all three of those things, it’s an open and curated ecosystem.

Testing ecosystems for publish, find, and like

Again, any ecosystem that is open and curated must allow for users to perform these three verbs. But first let’s define the three verbs a little more rigorously:

  • Publish: people should be able to upload products freely; there should be no restrictions on what is allowed, besides perhaps having an account. No editors, censorship, or fees.
  • Find: people should be able to find any product in the ecosystem based on various criteria. That is, the ecosystem should keep track of every product ever uploaded and ensure that its search feature searches all those products. No “bottomless pits” like the open internet, where much data isn’t findable by search engines.
  • Like: people should be able to rate whether products are good or not. The ecosystem should also allow people to see the most-liked products so that the most popular products indeed rise to the top.

Now let’s revisit our three models for ecosystems to see how they stack up with respect to these three verbs:

Ecosystem Publish? Find? Like?
Walled gardens No Yes Yes
Open internet Yes No No
Open-source marketplaces Yes Yes Yes

This shows us that open-source marketplaces are a combination of walled gardens and the open internet — it combines the best parts of each. Moral of the story: We should aim for more open-source marketplaces to ensure the best possible experience for both developers and consumers.

Looking beyond technology

Once you start thinking in terms of open, curated, publish, find, and like, you can start applying these concepts to all kinds of ecosystems.

Social media

First, you’ll notice there are more open and curated marketplaces out there than you might think:

  • YouTube is both open and curated since it fulfills publish, find, and like. Anyone can publish a video with virtually no limitations (all you need is a camera), users can search the entire video database, and users can like their favorite videos — and the most favorited videos start trending.
  • Facebook is also open and curated in a sense; users are the products. Anyone can publish themselves by making an account, people can find one another, and the most popular people get liked — or friended — by the most users and show up on others’ news feeds.
YouTube logo
Social networks like YouTube are classic examples of open and curated ecosystems — anyone can publish, find, and like videos.

In fact, I’d be willing to bet that most social networks are open and curated. There’s good reason for that — this model works for both publishers and consumers.

Making more ecosystems open and curated

Unfortunately, many ecosystems aren’t open and curated, but I think we can easily make them that way.

For instance, take government. Right now, legislation is thoroughly vetted (curated), but average citizens have no way of proposing it (not open). Government services are carefully calibrated, but no citizen can contribute to them. As we saw, great for those in power but not great for average citizens.

What if, instead, we opened up government legislation and services by crowdsourcing citizens’ suggestions and then letting the best ones win out? That’s actually an up-and-coming field with proposed solutions such as soliciting citizen feedback on bills or public service hackathons. Opening up government should be a huge priority.

There are plenty of other fields where we could apply this line of thinking: business, education, etc. It’s very powerful.

Conclusion and crowdsourcing

As we saw, open and curated ecosystems are great for publishers and consumers alike. In technology, this takes the form of open-source marketplaces like GitHub or the Firefox Marketplace, which more platforms — including the iOS App Store and Google Play — should try to emulate. But this idea extends to our most popular social networks and other fields, too, such as government, business, education, you name it. We need to create more of these open and curated ecosystems — and it all starts with publish, like, and find.

After that, it’s all about having faith in crowdsourcing. Open and curated ecosystems are all about crowdsourcing, as they rely entirely on users to populate the marketplace (publish) and curate the list of products (like).

So as long as you have enough initiative to create an ecosystem that supports those three verbs, a strong enough community of publishers and consumers, and faith in your user base — in crowdsourcing — you can make an open and curated ecosystem a reality.

So, armed with our three verbs, let’s go tear down those walls.

Published by

Neel Mehta

Harvard College. Web developer. Sometime philosopher. Baseball junkie.

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