Books: The wacky world of Wiki

Web 2.0 is spawning viable business models in unexpected corners. Roger Parry welcomes a book that describes how people power is conquering the internet.

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Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

As the frenzy of the early internet has matured into the relative stability of Web 2.0, robust and viable business models have emerged: in retailing, Amazon; auctions, eBay; search, Google; and collective writing, Wikipedia.

Wikipedia is the wildly successful online encyclopaedia that allows anyone to write and edit an entry using a bit of software called a 'wiki' - the Hawaiian word for 'quick'. But Wikinomics is not about Wikipedia so much as the whole phenomenon of internet-enabled mass participation. To quote the authors: 'A wiki is more than software for enabling multiple people to edit websites. It is a metaphor for a new era of collaboration.'

The book itself is an Anglo-Canadian team effort, pairing Don Tapscott of the University of Toronto with Anthony Williams from the LSE. These transatlantic roots give Wikinomics depth and interest, with numerous case studies from both sides of the Atlantic. The authors work for the same consulting firm, New Paradigm, which marks the book out as a client-development project - but it is none the worse for that. Indeed, the commercial resources mean it is well researched, written and edited with an eye to its sales role.

It starts, in a very satisfying way for a business book, with the story of a failing goldmine in Canada whose fortunes were restored by putting its hitherto secret geological data into the internet, inviting the world's enthusiastic amateur, and underemployed professional geologists to help identify overlooked gold reserves. Hundreds of them did just that. It turned out to be a $9bn success story and a poster child for using internet tools to manage mass team efforts.

The book describes a series of business ideas or approaches that are at the root of rapid, collective change. Among these are:

Peer production - Includes products like Wikipedia itself and the Linux operating system, where volunteers create and update it.

Ideagoras - Websites that allow a matching of commercial problems with technical solutions. The authors cite the example of Procter & Gamble needing to print animal characters on Pringles crisps; P&G published the challenge via the web and found an Italian bakery that had developed the technology.

Prosumers - This describes how consumers now participate in the creation and modification of the product. At first sight, it sounds like an online version of pick-your-own strawberries, but it is far more than that. It includes 'games' like Second Life and the building toy, Lego Mindstorms, or music re-mixing where consumers actively create what they consume.

The book is about the potential of Web 2.0. The authors call it the 'programmable web'. They explain that the original use of the internet was for posting pages that people would look at - a classic one-way publishing approach. Now this has changed: 'Whether people are creating, sharing or socialising, the new web is principally about participating rather than about passively receiving information.'

Getting this right marks the difference between success and failure: 'Losers build websites. Winners build vibrant communities. Losers build walled gardens. Winners build public squares.'

But Wikinomics is not limited to cyberspace. It explains how collective effort is transforming manufacturers like BMW and Boeing and service companies like the computer repair outfit, the Geek Squad. Web tools help them to do traditional things in new ways: 'weapons of mass collaboration', according to the authors.

You could say the book - a 2006 view of the wiki-world - is already dated. But the authors have addressed this in exemplary style by having a website - wikinomics.com - that allows readers to keep the book fresh by participating and adding recent case histories.

It's noteworthy that a book so full of Web 2.0 examples is strangely silent on Facebook, the latest white-hot web phenomenon. But Facebook is exactly what they described, in theory, in their chapter on open platforms. Go to wikinomics.com and there Facebook is, all over the comment pages. Proof, if needed, of the validity of the authors' core argument of getting other people to do the work for you by creating a community.

If you are sitting in a boardroom worried that the web is passing you by, then Wikinomics is a great, quick way to get up to speed on the business models and social trends that are changing the world.

This is one of the best business books I have read for years. If you are running a business, you would be cavalier not to take on board its messages. Wikinomics is an important book on a fascinating subject.

Roger Parry is chairman of the online polling company YouGov, and is currently looking for friends on Facebook.

Wikinomics: How mass collaboration changes everything
Don Tapscott and Anthony D Williams
Atlantic Books £16.99

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