Book review: We all Digg but who gets Web 2.0 gold?

'Wikinomics' finds society and interpersonal relationships have influenced Web 2.0

Web 2.0 has become something of a cliché, but it’s recognised that there are significant new ways of using the web. The authors of Wikinomics: How mass collaboration changes everything, Don Tapscott and Anthony Williams, attempt to outline the essentials of this change in their book. But, they see these changes as not only being to do with the web, but with society and interpersonal relationships as well. These have both influenced Web 2.0 and been influenced by it, too.

So, signalling this broader perspective, their opening story is not really about the web as such. Rather, it tells how Canadian mining company Goldcorp, contrary to all usual commercial instincts, released prospecting data on a particular tract of land to the public, challenging people to bend their minds to interpreting the data and finding gold.

The collaborative exercise was a big success. It brought a number of recommendations for promising mining sites, many of which proved fruitful, resulting in major growth for the company.

Goldcorp’s company website obviously played a part in the scheme, but, essentially, it was the change in attitude — towards openness, sharing and collaboration — that was most important, say the authors.

The pair also identified “peering” — the trend away from hierarchical or one-way relationships between the manager and worker, and content provider and consumer — as well as global reach as being key factors in this supposed revolution.

Tapscott and Williams call the confluence of such factors “the Perfect Storm”. While many of these influences arise directly from the technology, or from a new generation growing up with the technology, some factors — such as the breakdown of vertically integrated company structures and the increase in outsourcing — have been growing for decades. Indeed, sociologist Ronald Coase identified such in his book The Nature of the Firm, in 1937.

The globalisation of industry is seen as another element in the “storm”. Since globalisation is undeniably being assisted by the internet it is becoming hard to disentangle cause from effect.

The book provides a wealth of practical examples of these changes. It parades all the usual suspects: open source software; E-bay; Wikipedia; mash-ups, and social networking. But the procession of anecdotes tends to overwhelm the book’s argument, causing it to lose structure.

There is also little scepticism and nor do the authors make enough effort to seriously answer the critics’ questions. These critics include those who sell proprietary software, and who say the open source model denies developers the full reward for their creativity.

Other critics include music and video producers. They condemn as thieves those whom Tapscott and Williams describe as simply being “creative” with others’ input. By implication, those who protest that there is value in the old ways, and risk in the new, are dismissed as being outmoded.

The chapter on the “prosumer” invites the most scepticism. Yes, nowadays the customer does have a little more influence regarding the way products and services evolve. They can even hack the merchandise – for example, by converting an iPod into a full-blown PDA. But the hacker would have little luck calling in the warranty on such an altered device.

An example of Lego’s harvesting of customers’ ideas, to “enhance the experience” of its Mindstorms robot construction range — and not paying them — sounds like old-fashioned capitalist exploitation in another guise. And, if you’re going to praise ordinary people’s contribution to a film’s plot and production, the awful Snakes on a Plane is hardly a shining example.

“The New Alexandrians” chapter points out the efficient ways academic knowledge can be shared, peer-reviewed, knocked into better shape and published. But this is simply a speeding up of what academia has been doing for centuries. It hardly rates as a paradigm shift.

The sceptic is, belatedly, allowed a voice in the chapter “Platforms for Participation”, where blogger Om Malik is quoted: “If we tag, bookmark or share, and help del.icio.us or Technorati or Yahoo become better commercial entities, aren’t we commoditising our must valuable asset — time?... Will we share in their upside? Not likely!”

Tapscott and Williams concede that “the business model issues have not kept pace with the speed of innovation.” As though all will come right if we just give it time.

Wikinomics is a useful canter through both the familiar and less familiar pastures of Web 2.0, but the argument it puts forward is too one-sided and its exposition too slow-moving. However, the authors have put the draft text of a sequel on a website, at: www.socialtext.net/wikinomics/index.cgi. They invite discussion and wiki-style editing. Maybe collaboration will improve the product in time — but will we, the readers, share in the upside?

Wikinomics: How mass collaboration changes everything, by Don Tapscott and Anthony D. Williams. Atlantic Books (paperback); 324pp; $35.00.

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