We-Think: Leadbeater’s presentation

Last night I attended a public lecture at the RSA from Charlie Leadbeater, based on his new book, We-Think. And anyone who follows my twittering will be aware I was spamming away during the lecture!

First of all, I have to say I am a bit of a fan of Leadbeater’s methods and vision. As an advocate of these technologies it’s fantastic to come across people like Leadbeater and Shirky and Rheingold and others who share my sense of the value of social networks for changing the way we can behave collectively. But even when I come across a ‘kindred spirit’ in social technologies, I need to ensure I think critically about what is being set – not to criticise, but rather to critique. And as such, I was drawn to the issues raised about mass innovation and the claims made by so many theorists about the reducing costs of production with social media.

I’ve said this myself. Certainly social networking tools such as blogs and wiki do provide the users with the tools to publish their opinions for a general audience, and for those blogs and wikis that attract significant traffic, there is also the opportunity to engage in sustained debate on issues raised (or at least continue the conversation for longer than an hour or a day). And there is no doubt at all that the greatest advantage of these technologies is that they enable mass access to knowledge which is collectively and collaboratively created. (Incidentally, someone pointed out to me on this blog the other day that the word ‘collaboration’ could have negative connotations for some people, due to use of the word in ‘collaborating with the enemy’… so perhaps ‘cooperatively created’ may be a better expression). The value of wikipedia as a current and remarkably accurate resource for information on virtually any topic is profound. Regardless of all the attempts to denigrate wikipedia as a popular reference, with its volunteer editing force, the phenomenon keeps proving the doubters wrong, coming up as more reliable and certainly more current than any other major reference source.

The only problem I have with the notion of social networking and collaborative innovation and knowledge sharing is that it’s actually not as cheap as everyone thinks it is. And that’s the only thing that really concerned me about Leadbeater’s presentation last night.

Here’s the thing: the truth about Wikipedia and other social networking platforms is that they are hugely expensive to run. Hosting costs on the Amazon S3 platform may be cheap but they are not zero. Not by a long shot. But more importantly, there is massive time investment from a volunteer force of editors at Wikipedia who strive to ensure information is accurate and up-to-date. These people believe strongly in the principle of providing access to information. And they spend hundreds of unpaid hours ensuring that the hackers and even the well-meaning but misguided posters to wikipedia are kept under control. Now money may not change hands, but the time costs associated with editing are phenomenal.

And for more commercial sites and social networking platforms, delivery of professional content, editing of user generated content and responding to the needs of the users generally involves the employment of staff for those roles. Further, the ongoing bug fixing and continuing development of functional components that improve the accessibility and accuracy of information presented is an ongoing cost – and a large one.

This a problem I have identified before in Benkler’s work on the cost of information filtering. Even where there is not a monetary cost associated with accessing specific and targeted information, there is often a cost associated with generating that knowledge. That could be a financial cost or a commercial (advertising sponsored) cost or an opportunity cost if the information is not gathered in time or for the benefit of the gatherer. There are a series of other costs too, associated with marginal value added and investment return for information searching, as well as intangible costs and benefits of social connection and productivity disruption. These are all familiar to economists, because they are the costs that are associated with sales and with acquisition of property. But they keep getting ignored as costs for social networking technologies. They exist, but we advocates all rather conveniently ignore them.

And at our peril: the costs of keeping information accurate and current could generate a new hierarchy of information wealth – those with the means to be able to support information searching, and those who must resort to the more mundane resources online. And there is already a new industry of agents emerging who specialise in data mining and network theory as a means of extracting information efficiently and generating connections more efficiently between key players in a system. These are premium services, requiring highly specialised skills and technologies, and no matter how collaborative people may be in publishing the specifications of a data mining technique, the cost of integrating these specifications and the first mover advantage in deploying them for the benefit of a corporate player are both colossal.

I asked a question of Leadbeater last night about the possibility of an emerging hierarchy of information haves and have-nots on the basis of such powerful costs in information filtering, but Leadbeater responded in terms of social hieracrhies and not financial relationships. In all fairness, the way the questions were posed (3 at a time) made it hard for questions to be answered successfully, so I completely understand his difficulty with my perspective. And when I perhaps phrased the issue a little more succinctly later, he expressed a keen interest in seeing how these little information empires are being built. But it’s something I think we all should understand. Social networking technologies are revolutionary in their potential for information access. We just need to be aware now that if we want to sustain that democratic accessibility of knowledge, then we are going to have to consider the economic and social ramifications of the perennial drive for more and more accurate knowledge, as well as more and more beneficial connections between people.

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