The definition of a walled garden: a closed ecosystem in which all the operations are controlled by the ecosystem operator or the platform owner. A long time ago, ‘walled gardens’ meant acres of a beautifully landscaped expanse owned by wealthy landlords with no access to the outsider. Set against the backdrop of lavish bungalows and estates, what happened within the walls remained inside, the house rules were set by a few and had to be followed by everyone who walked into the area (with permission of course!)
BRANDS AND THE DIGITAL ECOSYSTEM
The digital landscape today is divided between two ecosystems, the first being the digital walled garden ecosystem owned by some of the most powerful companies in the world and the other which exists on the open web. The industry at any given point vacillates between sheer despair and joyous approval for walled gardened ecosystems depending upon what they seek from them. The lack of transparency, control over algorithms that decide what is kosher and what is not, restrictions on easy access and so on have been spoken of from time to time.
LESSONS FROM INCIDENTS LIKE #BOISLOCKERROOM
One of the topics that have not had enough of discussion is the one regarding the safety of the brands that use any ecosystem to reach the audience. It has already been concluded that nothing is free in the digital world and the trade off for using these platforms is the data on the users that get generated which the brands use to customise their messaging according to their needs. In effect, the brands pay the ecosystem for access to the audience in the belief that the environment in which the brand messaging lives is clean and adheres to the brand values. What is seen is the exact opposite – every week there is a new storm that surfaces on almost every closed ecosystem which exposes a combination of lack of maturity and sheer callousness of the platforms. Whether it is the ‘#boislockerroom’ incident or the acid attack viral videos or fake news and offensive content targeting minorities, brands are walking on egg shells to ensure that they do not get caught in the crossfire of the backlash against the content and their association with it. This is particularly severe where the consumer / creator is the one who is the driving force putting out the content with no thought of the consequences. One recent controversy that illustrates this very well is the one where a superhero was locked in a gun battle with an animated princess who is cherished by millions of little children – these were created by people looking to make money off the demand for children’s content and the need for a few brands to advertise on this content.
CHECKS AND BALANCES FOR BRAND SAFETY
The problem arises due to a lack of effort in moderating the content. Ads no longer appear in places where the surrounding articles are written, edited and curated by responsible writers and an editor who takes his/her reputation seriously on the basis of what s/he publishes every day. Instead, the content now sits within an environment where the ecosystem allows everything from benign forwards to rabid hatred to remain only for the sake of increasing daily active users and, in turn, ad revenues. Funnily, at the risk of damaging the advertisers and brands. Unless platforms can own up and take responsibility which goes beyond feeble attempts at putting the onus on the users to flag off inappropriate content, the path ahead for brands is going to be like walking in a field full of landmines. One will never know what one is getting into. And no, life is not a box of chocolates full of surprises like Forrest Gump claimed! It may be time for brands to re-look at where their communication lives and start exploring options that guarantee brand safety and quality of content through checks and balances that include human intelligence, where the context of the content is as important as its quality.