Dan Gillmor: Networking for Fun and Profit

By CIOinsight  |  Posted 08-08-2006

Dan Gillmor: Networking for Fun and Profit

Several years ago, while working on a book about changes in media and journalism, I posted the book's outline on the Web before I began my in-depth reporting and writing. I also posted chapter drafts online. In both cases, my editor and I were looking for ideas, and much more. We wondered what trends or nuances I might have missed, as well as what I might have gotten wrong.

People responded, and how. They inundated me with suggestions. They pointed out inaccuracies and nuances. In general, they helped create a considerably better book. During that period, a journalist friend called up and asked, "So, how is the Tom Sawyer book project going?" We both laughed, but I spent some time pondering what he'd said. In the end, I decided he'd missed the point. I wasn't trying to trick anyone into painting my fence. I was asking for advice on a) how to paint it; b) what color to use; and c) what spots needed an extra coat.

My little story is a minor example of a much richer and more significant trend, the intellectual champion of which is Yochai Benkler, a Yale University law professor whose work has informed mine in major ways. In his important new book, The Wealth of Networks: How Social Production Transforms Markets and Freedom (Yale University Press), Benkler illuminates how a phenomenon that traditional economics has failed to explain—social sharing that produces wealth—will become a crucial wave of our future: "We are in the midst of a technological, economic and organizational transformation that will affect not only information production, but also the core liberal values of freedom and justice," he declares. Do not write that statement off as hype, because Benkler amply backs it up.

At the core of this transformation—from the traditional, competitive, capital-intensive model of wealth production to a model much more dependent on creating and sharing information—is cooperation for non-monetary purposes, something just as fundamental to human existence as competition. When I spoke with Benkler, he attributed this change to the efficiencies brought about by the networking of personal computers, and the resulting increase in the value of information. "Creativity becomes a very important component," he says, in creating business value. In other words, creating business value may require fewer dollars in a decentralized world.

Consider open-source software. Anyone involved in technology is already aware of its benefits. Benkler calls projects such as GNU/Linux "commons-based peer production," which create information "products" that exist without traditional economic incentives or a top-down command structure. But as he observes, it's not just software. The Wikipedia project is an example of something that could not have existed before digital networks gave rise to the possibilities we are collectively exploiting (in the best sense of the word).

Among companies that have spotted new opportunities amid disruption are IBM, a longtime patent-acquisition and monetization machine of the old school. Citing IBM's embrace of Linux and other open-source software a few years ago, Benkler observes that in a recent four-year period, IBM's Linux-related services "moved from accounting for practically no revenues, to providing double the revenues from all patent-related sources, of the firm that has been the most patent-productive in the United States." The company has invested heavily, in dollars and people, to contribute to the open-source community, ending up with better technology and closer relationships with customers. "In other words," Benkler says, "IBM has combined both supply-side and demand-side strategies to adopt a nonproprietary business model that has generated more than $2 billion yearly of business for the firm. Its strategy is, if not symbiotic, certainly complementary to free software."

Next page: But Will it Happen?

But Will it Happen

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People and companies contribute to social production for a variety of motives. As Benkler wryly notes, leaving a $50 check on the table after a dinner party at a friend's home almost certainly won't increase the likelihood of a return invitation. People do things for pay, certainly, but they also do things for entirely non-mercenary reasons. One of the most telling anecdotes in Benkler's book involves how information makes its way into the public consciousness. He cites Diebold, a company that makes (among other things), electronic voting machines that have been shown to be flawed. When embarrassing internal e-mails about the voting machines found their way onto the Web, the company launched lawyers at some of the people who'd published them. In the end, however, Diebold succeeded only in creating a groundswell of angry people, including college students, who ensured that the e-mails remained public. Benkler correctly sees this as "a call to arms that would have been simply infeasible in a mass-media environment." Diebold learned a hard lesson that has wider meaning than the perils of ignoring what may seem like "noise" from bloggers: Some of the company's online tormentors had a degree of technological expertise that appeared to exceed Diebold's, and their work was cited by at least one state government in holding the company to stricter accountability.

Benkler argues that we would collectively be better off with wider adoption of collaborative techniques, but he doesn't dismiss the potential or likelihood of problems. Enormous businesses have been created in the past decades of mass industrialization, in industries that employ millions of people and help fuel our current economy. "If it is in fact a major transformation in the way we produce in the economy, there will be a lot of dislocation, and you can't be too glib about that dislocation," he says.

Nor does he regard this transformation as a foregone conclusion, in considerable part because of the influence of industries threatened most by dislocation. "It depends on the policy choices that we make in the coming decade," he writes. Intellectual property law, which he regards as a deeply regressive force in its present state (and getting worse), is a primary problem. In entertainment and other arenas, holders of IP rights are using the law to thwart innovation they can't control. He is not against some IP protection, but he does hold a (properly) jaundiced view of the idea that stronger and stronger locks on knowledge will lead to a better outcome for the most people. In fact, he argues, a more rational balance is one of the keys to creating an economic system that serves the collective interest far more efficiently and justly.

Benkler follows his own advice, incidentally. As I did with my own book in 2004, he and his publisher have released The Wealth of Networks under a Creative Commons license, in which some, but not all, rights are reserved. Anyone may copy and re-use the work for noncommercial uses. Benkler has even created a Wiki site to extend his work. One caution: This is not read-at-the-beach material. It's frequently dense—though not impenetrable like so much academic prose—and demands some concentration. But the ten years or so that Benkler put into this work are more than worth a few hours of anyone's time. I can promise this: You will be pondering its lessons, and the questions it raises, for considerably longer.

Dan Gillmor is author of We the Media: Grassroots Journalism by the People, for the People and director of the Center for Citizen Media. His next column will appear in October.