by on February 21, 2007

I’m reading Wikinomics: How Mass Collaboration Changes Everything. The authors, Don Tapscott and Anthony Williams, have managed an impressive feat: they’ve translated Yochai Benkler’s The Wealth of Networks into marketing copy. Well, OK, that’s a little bit unfair. But their book is definitely unlike I’ve read about peer production. To my knowledge, it’s the first book on the subject that’s pitched toward business leaders rather than academics or techies. Accordingly, it stays at the treetop level and focuses on business implications wherever possible, explaining what peer production is, why businesses should care, and how businesses can use peer production to their advantage.

The authors are extremely enthusiastic about the phenomena they describe. They’re positively effusive in their predictions that mass collaborations will revolutionize industries, empower consumers, and democratize markets. Yet despite the gee-whiz tone, this is not a shallow book. They do a good job of summarizing the thesis of Benkler’s “Coase’s Panguin” without getting bogged in academic formalisms. They discuss the various controveries surrounding Wikipedia (such as this one), mostly coming down on the pro-Wikipedia side of the arguments. And they introduce the reader to a variety of programs, companies, and concepts–blogs, Linux, Apache, Flickr, Boing Boing, Second Life, etc. Obviously, few of these are new to TLF readers, but for the business people who are the book’s target audience, this is likely to be a welcome introduction to the concepts.

Where I begin to encounter examples that were new to me is when they shifted from discussing true peer production to discussing a variety of business strategies that employed quasi-peer-production techniques to harness outside talent in the service of corporate goals. They tell the story of a gold mining firm that releases all the geological data about one of its mines to the Internet at large and offers cash prizes to anyone who can tell them where the gold was. They talk about Innocentive, a matchmaking service in which companies needing scientific research done can post problems to be solved and scientists with the requisite skills can sign up to solve them. Purists would object that these are not, strictly speaking, examples of peer production, which is true. However, I think Tapscott and Williams are right that they do display some of the hallmarks of peer production, and some of the insights about peer production also apply to these hybrid approaches.

I agreed with the overwhelming majority of what the authors had to say, but it would be no fun to simply discuss all the areas of agreement. So in a couple of subsequent posts, I’ll highlight a few places where I thought their argument went off the rails.

Still, my critiques will largely be limited to nitpicks. If you know someone who’s in business school or a manager at a large corporation, you should definitely recommend Wikinomics to her. It’s an excellent way for her to get a handle on a phenomenon that’s only going to grow more important in the coming years.

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