It’s the network, stupid!

I woke up this morning to find a pointer on that directed me through Howard Rheingold’s Smart Mobs blog to an essay by IBM strategist Irving Wladawsky-Berger on the potential, perhaps even the inevitability, of cooperation in a networked age.

I use “inevitable” guardedly. It makes me sound like a commie which I’m not. I’m not even a starry-eyed idealist. It’s tough to be starry-eyed in middle age, when the eyes start to go. Even so I get a swell of hope when I find an IBM guy titling an essay “The Economic and Social Foundations of Collaborative Innovation” and populating it with words like these:

“Collaborative innovation is a serious mode of economic production that has arisen because the Internet and related technologies and standards now permit large numbers of individuals to organize themselves for productive work, in a decentralized, non-market way.”

Later in the essay, Irv — no disrespect intended but his last name is a mouthful — cites Yale law professor Yochai Benkler and Berkeley political scientist Steven Weber, both of whom have studied the Open Source software movement that has arguably produced the world’s most successful collaborative commercial projects.

“Professors Benkler and Weber address the questions of what motivates people to work together as a community for the common good with no direct fiscal gain, as well as how such communities organize and manage themselves. They also point out, though, that these new, collective approaches do create wealth, do create value, and are, in fact, viable business models that can coexist in a fruitful economic way with more traditional business models. We don’t yet know all the ways in which this new, dual-track marketplace is going to evolve — any more than people in the 18th century could foresee the full future impact of industrialization. But I think we have enough evidence already to say with some confidence that open approaches are not a flash in the pan or a flavor of the month.”

When I read thoughts of this nature I wonder whether there is something — if inevitable is too strong a word, then implicit — in Internet technology that conjures up collaboration. The answer has to be yes. To steal a phrase, “It’s the network, stupid!”

What’s good for computer software should also be good for media. Today media firms are factories that acquire information, entertainment and policy inputs, and pump out tangible or intangible products. In every media the economics underlying the old factory model are crumbling. New metaphors are arising to describe the nature of media in a networked age, starting perhaps with the Cluetrain Manifesto. More recently Dan Gillmor has articulated the notion of citizen journalism or grassroots media. Both are great ideas. But so far I have not seen how they pay the bills. Pardon me for being so crass as to ask: can cooperative media become an economically viable system as well as a socially desirable goal?

In my ruminations I have gone back to the farmer cooperatives of the American west to speculate — in a series of postings entitled Food for Thought One, Two and Three — that perhaps such models could work for media. At least that’s my hope.

And herein lies the power of the Internet age when it comes to lifting ideas off the ground. Even if you’ve got a bad idea, a brain-dead stupid notion, chances are that there is at least one other equally misguided node out there on the network. And how else can we discover the good ideas except by advancing — and trashing — the bad ones?

Tom Abate
‘Cause if you ain’t Mass Media, you’re Mini Media