EPA Book Review: Wikinomics: How mass collaboration changes everything

Wikinomics: How Mass Collaboration Changes Everything by Don Tapscott and Anthony D. Williams is a number of things. In some ways, it gives a brief history of the Web 2.0 revolution. In other ways, it predicts what the future of the Web holds. It also underscores the effect the, as they dubbed, “Net-Gen” is going to have on society and the workforce. Finally, it is a skim of a good business model in today’s society.

To me, one of the most interesting thing about Wikinomics is how outdated it was after only being in print for four years. During the time it was written, Myspace was king and Facebook was just a thing college students did. In some ways, it was almost like reading a history book. I found it particularly interesting how they stated a few times that Myspace completely understood how Wikinomics worked and now, it is apparent that they were never able to redevelop themselves and keep up with Facebook. (Please see my previous post on Myspace for more info)

That aside, the book had several compelling points about the future of the working and social world. Throughout, the authors continuously sold the importance of innovation. They did not just mean innovation through business employees, but by also tapping into external resources. As Tapscott and Williams (2006) stated, “The growing accessibility of information technologies puts the tools required to collaborate, create value, and compete at everybody’s fingertips. This liberates people to participate in innovation and wealthy creation within every sector of the economy” (p. 10-11). They continued on later, “’We the People’ is no longer just a political expression – a hopeful ode to the power of the ‘masses’; it’s also an apt description of how ordinary people as employees, consumers, community members and taxpayers now have the power to innovate and to create value on the global stage” (p. 14-15). A main thesis of the entire book was that everyone can innovate and anyone can be, what they dubbed, a prosumer.

The effect the new generation will have on the workplace was a subthesis of the book. According to Tapscott and Williams (2006) they have completely revolutionized the way we work online. “The Web is no longer about idly sufing and passively reading, listening or watching. IT’s about peering: sharing, socializing, collaborating and most of all, creating within loosely connected communities” (p. 45). As they put it late in the book to my generation, “The computer is not a box, it is a doorway” (p. 267). The fact that this generation has been raised connecting and interacting online, means a change in everything: the workplace, the social life, and even in education. According to Wikinomics, “The Net Generations concept of work is best described by a set of nontraditional attritubes or norms we identified in our research with colleague Robert Barnard. These N-Gen norms – speed, freedom, openness, innovation, mobility, authenticity and playfulness – can form the basis of a revitalized and innovative work culture but they also raise tough challenges for employers seeking to adapt to new expectations” (p. 54). Obviously, this will bring quite a change to the way things are now.

Tapscott and Williams reveals several well-known companies owe their success to effectively using Wikinomics in their workplace, as well as some organizations that have struggled due to not adapting to the times. Naturally, Google was one of the companies held in highest esteem, as was Amazon. Wikipedia’s allowing of what they dubbed as peering, was another example. While the flaws of open editing were admitted, the opportunities and effectiveness outweighed any negatives: “True Wikpedia’s openness leaves it vulnerable to inaccuracies, edit wars, and vandalism. But its openness is also the reason why it’s constantly growing, adding new entries, covering new niches, and always reviewing and updating facts” (p. 75).

One of my favorite examples shared was PeopleFinder, which came about because of Hurricane Katrina. The website aided citizens in helping to find their families feared lost in the disaster. While this is something a government program would ordinarily do, it was an external group that acted first. “What is remarkable is that PeopleFinder project might have taken a government agency with loads of money a year or more to execute. Yet the PeopleFinder group rallied to pull it together in four days with absolutely no cost to the taxpayer. Mass collaboration at its finest” (p. 187). The creation and continued of Best Buy’s Geek Squad was another captivating example. I loved how the Geek Squad members from around the nation are able to “talk shop” while playing video games. It shows how flat (as author Thomas Friedman puts it) the world truly is.

Using wiki’s in the workplace was another interesting example. “Mayfield suggest that part of the reason wikis are popular and useful is inherent in the nature of the collaborative tools themselves. ‘They have very different properties, because they ask users to share control, and that actually fosters trust. The more participation that you have,” he continues, “the great quality you’ll have in a project, in the same that open source works” (p. 254). This caused me to reflect back on different projects where we used a Google doc to collaborate. It does make it easier, as long as there is some organization going on.

Wikinomics also attacks its critics. Hands down one of my favorite parts was when discussing how true talent will not shine due to everyone being able to participate and contribute. According to Tapscott and Williams, “The opportunity to discover and nurture new Mozarts among a billion connected individuals is greater now than in a world where the fate of talented individuals depended on their ability to get noticed by an A&R representative from a major music label” (p. 273). Again, going along with the outdatedness this book, the first person to pop into my head was Justin Bieber, who was discovered due to Youtube videos he posted of himself. Who would teenage girls be screaming and drooling over today if it were not for Youtube?

My biggest critique of the book is how much it needed to be updated. Smart phones, which were just coming around in 2006, were never discussed. It discussed about whether or not Apple was going to have a handheld computer released in the future. Well nowadays, iPad, iPod Touch and iPhone are all staples in our vocabulary. As mentioned before, Facebook has completely taken over social networking and Twitter was just launched in July of the year this book was written (thank you Wikipedia for that information). News sites were criticized for not being engaging enough whereas nowadays every single major, and not-so-major, news organization has comments under every story and the option to share these stories through Facebook, Twitter, digg, StumbleUpon, etc. LinkedIn, which has helped many people find jobs and connect on a business level, was also not discussed. It is incredible how much has changed in these four years. Several of the main points are still relatable today, but the book could give much stronger examples now than it could then.

Nearly every point and topic of this class was highlighted in Wikinomics. If there were not so many outdated examples, I would highly suggest assigning this book next semester. Everything from online gaming, to social networking, to mass collaboration, to globalization was mentioned. Even Lawrence Lessig, author of our assigned Code 2.0, was interviewed and mentioned several times.

The public sector was barely touched upon, due to the fact it has been slow in developing and engaging in the ideas of Wikinomics. Tapscott and Williams emphasize the importance of having the public sector “get with the program” by stating, “the powerful combination of interactive mapping applications and citizen participation could easily be replicated to track information on issues such as employment, public health and migration patterns” (p 205). Thanks to President Obama’s understanding of the importance of e-public administration, we have slowly but surely been getting on track, but there is still plenty to change.

The bottom line of Wikinomics is that we need to change along with the times. We need to revamp our workplace, our society and our education in order to keep moving. It influences us to be more global, to engage in mass collaboration, to absorb as much information as we can to become better world citizens. As expressed by Cory Doctorow, “Blacksmiths weeping into their beer about their inability to sell horseshoes in the era of railroads doesn’t make horseshoes more popular. Blacksmiths learning how to become auto mechanics, on the other hand, put food on their table” (p. 286). It made me truly appreciate and realize how much we need to get in touch with the Net-Gen, “the new generation of digital citizens has the means of creation at their fingertips , so that anything that involves information and culture is grist for the mill of self-organized production… they are not consumers but prosumers” (p. 309). Times truly are a changin’ and we need to hop on the boat before it leaves without us.

Tapscott, D. & Williams, A.D. (2006). Wikinomics: How mass collaboration changes everything. New York: Portfolio by Penguin.

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