|Wikinomics: How Mass Collaboration Changes Everything|
|author||Don Tapscott, Anthony D. Williams|
|summary||The pros and cons of wikis and their place in business|
This statement isn't exactly true. The authors, Don Tapscott and Anthony Williams, have a wiki site at www.wikinomics.com devoted to the book. You can edit the wiki and have your say, but that's not what they're asking folks to buy. For the price of the book, you get a well-designed collection of thoughtful anecdotes stitched together by two talented business writers and polished by a good editor. They've made a good attempt to cover most aspects of the topic and they do an excellent job of explaining why the ideas are important for CEOs that are struggling to move their business forward. All of this is almost as portable as an iPod , dramatically less expensive and guaranteed never to need new batteries.
The tone of the book is bright and optimistic about how openness and wiki principles will help companies. We hear about how the wikipedia covered the London subway explosions, the way that Innocentive is opening up the R&D process for companies and the surprising inventiveness of Google maps users. The descriptions are thorough and well-researched, as far as they go, and when they're done going, the writers summarize them well. It's clear that the writers feel that the word "wikis" should be the new one word answer that CEOs should trot out when faced with the kind an impossible question, the kind of question that they the answered with "Internet" during the 1990s and "China" after the turn of the millenium.
The great advantages of the pulp-bound book become clear as you work your way through the text. In one section, for instance, Tapscott and Williams dismiss Jaron Lanier's worry that wikis can devolve when a smart mob develops the the same kind of "mass stupidity" that brought us Pol Pot or the Stalinist movement. "The winners will outnumber the losers", say the authors and conclude that Lanier "ran afoul". I don't really agree with the easy way that they dismissed the danger and if I had a wiki edit button in front of me, I would change the text to amplify Lanier's warnings. I've watched the mob rule delete perfectly good information from the wikipedia for no other reason than it wasn't "notable". The revision wars are legendary and any savvy wiki reader knows that skirmishes are more common than we would like. The well-meaning editors at the Wikipedia have probably destroyed more knowledge in the name of notability than the book burners of history. At least it's still there in the article history. But since Tapscott and Williams wrote a book that doesn't come with a wiki edit button, the text is better off because I didn't glue in my own divergent rant.
The optimism of the book is contagious and it would be a shame for it to be limited by a neutral point of view. Wikis organize casual information like how to install software, and this is the kind of job that is very important to business. Wikis may just be the wrong tool for, say, capturing political truthiness, but the book gives several good examples of how they energize corporations by making it easier for divisions, groups, and project teams to cooperate without going through traditional channels. If a business wants to formalize its collective intelligence, a wiki offers an ideal amount of flexibility.
If the book needs any editing, it would be to add more skepticism. At the beginning, they hint that they will address the kind of concerns that led Bill Gates to wonder about how society will pay for innovation if there's no profit incentive, but analyzing the limitations of the wikiworld isn't really their goal. There's little discussion of endeavors that have largely failed like Wikinews. That experiment with collaborative reporting had two articles on the day I wrote this and one article on the day before. (December 19 and 20th).
I've begun to feel lately that there is a real danger that free information will drive out paid information in much the same way that economists note that cheap money drives out the dear.
It's probably too early for us to have a firm grasp on the downsides to the wiki world and so it might be unfair to expect the book to be much of a buzz kill. One of the biggest logical problems I've found with the wikipedia is the inconsistent way that the movement treats traditional scholarship. On one hand, we're supposed to revel in the way that the wikipedia is often better than traditional mechanisms, but on the other hand the wikipedia gives more weight to outside sources. On the day I wrote this, the guide counseled, "Avoid weasel words such as, `Some people say ...' Instead, make your writing verifiable: find a specific person or group who holds that opinion and give a citation to a reputable publication in which they express that opinion." If the wikis become good enough to rival if not replace original sources, where will the wikis find the outside beacons of authority? Any strict logician will realize that there's a danger of proving 1=0 with this system, although I realize that all grown ups know that life is filled with logical inconsistencies like that.
The book, for instance, doesn't really question why the Wikipedia worked but the Wikinews didn't, something that no one may really know. The tone is closer to Ray Kinsella than Crash Davis. It celebrates Cory Doctorow, the famous editor of BoingBoing.net, a wonderful blog that I read daily. The authors explain how Doctorow gives away digital copies of his books because "his problem isn't piracy, it's obscurity."
Perhaps that's true, but a deeper question is how the wikis, mashups, and mixes will find their benchmarks of authority, their geodetic markers in memespace, their means of support. To test this danger, I wrote this greasemonkey script to count the words in a webpage between certain tags. On the day I wrote this, the admittedly imprecise script found 11788 words on the front page of Boing Boing, of which 6472 were between <blockquote> tags. That's about 50% borrowed text.
So far, this non-stop homage, this pantheon of fair use sells ads and seems to do quite well — Wikinomics suggests that BoingBoing's "readership now eclipses most mainstream media outlets." So why bother playing by the old school rules when you can just let others do the work while you push the boundaries of fair use and make money? There is a real danger that the original sources will find themselves starved for air as the Wikipedia and others fair use devotees suck up the top search rankings.
This may be why I think the book was right to bring these wiki worlds to the business community. At first I thought it was rather cynical to package up the wiki ideals into a neat bundle for the business leaders, but now I think that businesses are the ones who can really use and support the ideals. We now know that wikis can't be trusted for important, contentious areas of truthiness like politics, news, history, or any place where there's a difference of opinion about the facts, but it can still be ideal for semi-closed environments with outside means of support. I can imagine that wikis would be great for a corporation that needed to manage communication between the two divisions in different states. Openness gets rid of the natural inertia of bureaucracies. And it's clear that every company should have a wiki devoted to the user's guide so the customers can add what the manual writers never anticipated. Wikis allows one group to move ahead without asking another "mother may I". The umbrella business can pay the bills for keeping the lights on.
My guess is the folks in business who need to get things done may be the only ones who support the wikiconomy in the long term after the average joe gets a bit bored and tosses the wikis onto the pile of amusing distractions with the CB radios. The businesses are the ones with the real incentives to embrace the values of wikiness. And if you've spent a few years in the cubicle trenches, you know that words like "truthiness" have a certain ring to them.
Peter Wayner is the author of Translucent Databases and 12 other books.
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