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?

CIO Insight Staff
CIO Insight Staff
CIO Insight offers thought leadership and best practices in the IT security and management industry while providing expert recommendations on software solutions for IT leaders. It is the trusted resource for security professionals who need network monitoring technology and solutions to maintain regulatory compliance for their teams and organizations.

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