Open vs. Closed: Six New-Media Principles, No. 4

One of the key distinctions in the digital world is between closed systems and open ones. One example of a closed system, from the early days of the online experience, would be the original America Online or Prodigy of the 1990s. These “walled garden”┬ásystems restricted who could participate, and relied on custom-built, proprietary systems that could be difficult to use and impossible to adapt. The internet, by contrast, is an open system, built on published standards and accommodating a wide range of modifications.

Another example of closed and open digital systems comes from software. Proprietary software programs, like Microsoft Windows, are closed. Their source code is hidden and cannot be legally modified. Open-source software like Linux, by contrast, exposes its source code to the world, and not only allows modification by volunteers, but is built on such voluntary involvement.

From the user’s perspective, closed systems are generally expensive to buy and to implement while open ones are free and can cost less to put in place. In theory, closed, custom-built systems can more directly address the needs of the users who pay for the service. Open systems may be more difficult to adapt to individual use, but allow for interoperability with other systems.

This distinction between open and closed is useful to understanding and participating in new media. In general, old media prefers closed systems, allowing entry to some but excluding others, whether through paid or controlled subscriptions, copyright, or professional restrictions on content creation.

For legacy corporations, acceptance of openness is difficult. But given that, as discussed in yesterday’s post, new media favors the personal, individuals should find the transition easier. In fact, individual journalists stand to gain much more from open systems than do their employers.

Learning an open-source CMS like WordPress or Joomla, for instance, is more likely to benefit individual content creators as they change jobs than would a proprietary or custom-built system. Similarly, while restrictive paywalls may increase revenues for some publications, editors will often find more value to their reputations and careers in having their content accessible to all.

Media businesses may fear open systems, but individual journalists shouldn’t. Openness is their future.