May 18, 2008

Tapscott, Don and Anthony D. Williams. Wikinomics: How mass collaboration changes everything. New York: Portfolio, 2006. 295pp.

It seems that at least half the time I mention this book to someone interested in the way the web is changing social patterns the response is, "Oh, I tried to read it but just couldn't finish." It's an interesting response in many ways, one that tells us a lot about this book. Mostly it tells us that we're dealing with a seriously flawed book, one that has a lot of very interesting ideas in it, but that the presentation leaves a bit to be desired.

Personally, it did indeed take me a long time to read this book, at least a couple of months, reading a chapter here and there and putting it down for weeks at a time before taking it up again. It also took me a long time to get around to writing this review; I finished the book in the fall and I'm only just writing this now in May.

The topic? The affects of the sharing and collaboration promoted by web 2.0 technologies and how they will affect mainly businesses, but also other parts of society. Blogs, wikis, recommendation systems, user-generated comments, copyright, intellectual property, all the regular stuff. Interestingly, though, this was one of the first books to really tackle these issues and bring them to wide attention in the business community.

The issues? Typically of hype-oriented business strategy books, many of the claims seem wildly over-inflated and unsupported by facts or reality. The book is also incredibly repetitive, seemingly so that each paragraph, page or chapter could stand on its own. It's a strategy I see in a lot of business books: assuming that the reader has an incredibly short attention span and wants to get the main point just from reading a few pages or a chapter or two. At the same time, of course, no one's going to pay hardcover prices for a couple of chapters. So, just repeat and rephrase the main points constantly in each chapter. I find it kind of scary that there's a new expanded edition that's just gone on sale.

The book also overplays a lot of its points -- a lot of times I thought there was a bit of almost naivite involved, that the authors couldn't see the downside of some of the ideas they promoted. Globalization, deskilling, "race to the bottom," glorification of CEOs and top executives, the 100:10:1 phenomenon in online communities, a certain disdain for anything not new, hip or cool. An unawareness of the potential for tragedies of the commons in some of the areas. The idea that what are currently fringe activities are inevitably going to become dominant in the mainstream. The authors only spent very scant and almost dismissive attention to the human cost of economic paradigm shifts.

Frustrating, yes. On the other hand, there are a lot of good reasons to stick it out and read the whole book. It does make a lot of very good points about the benefits of openness and sharing for businesses and organizations of all types and sizes. There were actually many times while reading the book that I thought that if I could give one single book to every faculty member at my institution, this would be it. It so completely encompasses what is best about the web's ability to break down barriers and promote sharing and collaboration (not necessarily primary virtues in academia) that it would be interesting to see the effects of 1200+ faculty members all reading it together. This book is really a call to action for sharing and collaboration.

Read this book, the chapter on sharing and collaboration in eScience/Science 2.0 is very good. Be persistent and you'll make it all the way through. Read it, argue, engage and debate.

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