Wikinomics and its Discontents

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Article: Wikinomics and its discontents: a critical analysis of Web 2.0 business manifestos. By José Van Dijck and David Nieborg (University of Amsterdam



'Collaborative culture', 'mass creativity' and 'co-creation' appear to be contagious buzzwords that are rapidly infecting economic and cultural discourse on Web 2.0. Allegedly, peer production models will replace opaque, top-down business models, yielding to transparent, democratic structures where power is in the shared hands of responsible companies and skilled, qualified users. Manifestos such as Wikinomics (Tapscott and Williams, 2006) and 'We-Think' (Leadbeater, 2007) argue collective culture to be the basis for digital commerce. This article analyzes the assumptions behind this Web 2.0 newspeak and unravels how business gurus try to argue the universal benefits of a democratized and collectivist digital space. They implicitly endorse a notion of public collectivism that functions entirely inside commodity culture. The logic of Wikinomics and 'We-Think' urgently begs for deconstruction, especially since it is increasingly steering mainstream cultural theory on digital culture."



"In their respective books Wikinomics and We-Think, Tapscott, Williams and Leadbeater usher their readers into a brave new world of web-based economics, where cultural values such as participation, collectivism, and creativity are the mantras. These mantras not only inform the new business models of the digital economy, but their declared cultural roots suggest an ideological paradigm shift that is about to restructure post-industrial societies and post-service economies. As the cover of Wikinomics illustrates, initiatives like YouTube, MySpace, Wikipedia, Flickr, Second Life, Linux, InnoCentive and even the Human Genome Project are all grounded in the same basic principle: they are created by crowds of (mostly) anonymous users who define their own informational, expressive and communicational needs, a process touted as “mass creativity” or “peer production.” As a result, the conventional hierarchical business model of producer-consumer is rapidly replaced by the so-called “co-creation” model, a term frequently surfacing in business literature (Prahalad and Ramaswamy, 2004b). Mass creativity, peer-production and co-creation apparently warrant the erasure of the distinction between collective (non-market, public) and commercial (market, private) modes of production, as well as between producers and consumers; the terms also cleverly combine capital intensive profit-oriented industrial production with labour intensive, non-profit-oriented peer production. In this article, we will take Wikinomics and We-Think as exemplifying a currently popular wave of business and management books that favour terms like collectivism, participation and creativity to argue its benefits for Web 2.0 business and production models. A decade of experimenting with e-business models appears to have resulted in a smooth integration of communal modes of production into the largely commoditized infrastructure of the Internet.

Academics commonly look upon these kind of manifestoes as pamphlets written by business gurus trumpeting the victory of “dot.communism” over late capitalism. Indeed, Tapscott and Williams, like many of their colleagues, are first and foremost consultants who are in the business of selling their high-priced advice to (internet) companies. And yet, what is interesting in their manifestoes is the undeniable urge to prophesy an ideology of cultural collectivism as the gateway to economic cornucopia. Underneath the rhetoric of these manifestoes lies an intriguing complex of thought that has combined roots in hardcore business economics and in the socio-political idealism of the 1960s counterculture—a hybrid discourse that, as of late, has become increasingly popular in theories of the Web 2.0. (O’Reilly, 2005).

But how does the integration of grassroots collectivism into mainstream business take place?

By analyzing a sample of Web 2.0 business manifestoes, we want to uncover the assumptions underpinning these popular discourses—implied conjectures about creativity and consumption, producers and users, commerce and commons. As we will argue, these conjectures not only buttress the logic of economic and business discourse beyond these manifestoes, but they can also be found in academic cultural theory books promoting convergence and participatory culture."


"Manifestoes like We Think and Wikinomics show a distinctive tendency to push hybrid concepts that merge consumer interests with producer interests. Notions such as “prosumer” have permeated management-speak ever since “experience” became the magic word to tout customer engagement (Toffler, 1980; Pine and Gilmore, 1999). Yet the growth of Web 2.0 technologies, translating networked information into mass creativity, spurs the full integration of “produsage” into common parlance (Bruns, 2007; 2008). Tapscott and Williams (2006: 150) call attention to how industries stand to profit from the new consumer activism: “You can participate in the economy as an equal, co-creating value with your peers and favourite companies to meet your very personal needs, to engage in fulfilling communities, to change the world, or just to have fun! Prosumption comes full circle!” Produsage and prosumption are presented as manifestations of creative emancipation. As Leadbeater (2007: 6) argues: “Consumers turn out to be producers. Demand breeds its own supply. Leisure becomes a form of work. A huge amount of creative work is done in spite, or perhaps because, of people not being paid.” The active involvement of the people-formerly-known-as-customers and the formation of communities are both celebrated as the best thing since the establishment of worker’s comp and a woman’s right to vote—the long awaited emancipation of the digital citizen who wants to create her own products and be in charge of her own distribution.

Wikinomics and We-Think-authors proclaim the marriage of former foes production and consumption and, consequently, of for-profit and non-profit platforms; the result of this marriage’s consummation is the birth of a new business model called “co-creation”. However, the baby turns out to be conjoined twins. In defining the term, management gurus carefully avoid the language of labour economics and consumer markets. They describe co-creating communities as groups of self-selecting individuals who choose to be working on communal projects, whether or not mediated by companies (Kozinets, 1999; McWilliam, 2000). Neo-Marxists have countered the myth of co-creation arguing that customers in the Web 2.0 economy often provide free labour; user-generated content simply means that consumers are taking a lot of work out of the hands of producers (Terranova, 2000; de Peuter and Dyer-Witheford, 2005). As Terranova (2000: 35) observes, the Internet “does not automatically turn every user into an active producer, and every worker into a creative subject.” Co-creation, she contends, does not yield any power and control over the means of production. On the contrary, user control and power are troubled concepts in the culturally spiced lingo of business experts (see also Prűgl and Schreier, 2006). Indeed, a bit of uneasiness with self-organizing users surfaces in Wikinomics when the authors warn companies that the crowds cannot be “controlled easily,” but they can be “steered” (Tapscott and Williams, 2006: 45).

The hybrid term “co-creation” also rhetorically pre-empts the meaning of “consumer markets.” The discourse of business applauds users who provide content for their favourite sites or games not only because they take care of the process of selection and evaluation, but, on top of that, because they help advertising companies by forming groups of like-minded customers with similar tastes and lifestyles who engage in dialogue and exchange responses. Most e-communities are actually thinly disguised entertainment platforms (YouTube, Hyves, The Sims, or product-exchange markets (eBay, Amazon) where people come together to find someone, something or something to do. In doing so, they inadvertently form attractive profiling communities for advertisers who used to spend a lot of money finding out what demographic group covets similar tastes and products. Life has never been easier for marketers. Now that advertising agencies and marketing departments no longer have to look for grassroots groups affiliated with (commercial) products or services, they take the guess-work out of marketing by letting customers create online brand communities which then serve as marketing niches or free service support.

The term co-creation has yet another side to it that is conspicuously absent in business pamphlets, even if most Web 2.0 platforms derive their profits from this added value. Every user who contributes content, and, for that matter, every passive spectator who clicks on UGC sites (such as YouTube) or SNS sites (such as Facebook), provides valuable information about herself and her preferred interests, yet she has no control whatsoever over what information is extracted from her clicking behaviour and how this information is processed and disseminated. For instance, even if we assume that YouTube users have full power over content creation and distribution (which they have not), they have no say over the data and metadata generated and aggregated by platform providers such as YouTube’s owner Google. And these (meta)data are more valuable than the content itself. To put it bluntly: rather than being in the business of content, Google is in the business of deriving commercially significant data from users and connecting these data to companies who need them for targeted advertising, marketing and sales management. Google is less interested in co-creation or content than they are in people making connections—connections that yield valuable information about who they are and what they are interested in.

When the authors of Wikinomics applaud Google and similar search-media companies for their effort to provide “new public squares, vibrant meeting places where your customers come back for the rich and engaging experiences,” they significantly add the phrase: “Relationships, after all, are the one thing you can’t commoditize” (Tapscott and Williams, 2006: 44)—a phrase poignantly echoing the advertisement slogans of credit card companies. And yet, commoditizing connections is exactly what facilitators of user-generated content do: they capitalize on the relationships and social behaviour of people clicking away on their sites. Google is not interested in collectivity but in connectivity; MySpace is not about creativity, it’s about detecting related activity; Facebook does not want to link friends to friends, but is in the business of linking people to advertisers and products. Not content, but connections and profiled actions are the new commodities. And yet, the discourse of commoditization is entirely subjugated to the rhetoric of connectivity."


"A fundamental assumption on which the ideological treatises of Wikinomics and We-Think thrive is the unproblematic equation of non-profit and commercial platforms in the Web 2.0 universe. Commercial UGC-enablers such as Google and Amazon and non-profit projects such as Wikipedia are equally applauded for providing software platforms where users can creatively express themselves and share cultural content. In fact, these business guides to the digital galaxy make a point of explaining how the innate benevolence of co-creation and prosumership transforms the “old” capitalist enterprise model into a “new” standard of shared public-private system of value creation. The new values of sharing, peering and openness bring society a more sustainable model of entrepreneurship in which companies are socially responsible by being open and transparent, and in which users are socially responsible by dedicating part of their energy to “common causes” such as open source software (Linux) and knowledge infrastructures (Wikipedia). As Tapscott and Williams (2006: 44) profess: “Web companies are realizing that openness fosters trust, and that trust and community bring people back to the site.”

There are several disputable tenets implied in this glorification of private-public entrepreneurship and in the uncritical alignment of producer interests with consumer benefits. Most profoundly, Wikinomics and We-Think suggest the distinction between non-profit and for-profit platforms is made irrelevant by the model of peer-production, as if peer-production were some overarching humanist principle of society’s organization."

4. Conclusion

"In this article, we have argued how Web 2.0 manifestoes promote the combined cultural and economic significance of business models both in terms of their rhetorical influence as well as in terms of their impact on social and cultural theory. Cluetrain, Wikinomics and We-Think extend a line of thinking, historically analyzed by Fred Turner (2005), that is markedly rooted in a capitalist individualist model while eloquently tapping into the spirit of communalization—a hybrid line of reasoning that has dominated grass roots virtual communities from the very beginning. Behind the abrasive lingo of these manifestoes lie some important basic assumptions about how a new digital infrastructure has come to govern our mediascape as well as our social lives. We particularly questioned these authors’ undifferentiated concept of users and platforms; we have also interrogated the introduction of new concepts such as produsage and co-creation into mainstream economic discourse.

In addition, we have shown how some of the basic manifestoes’ persuasive claims and rhetoric have been uncritically adopted by cultural theory; books like Convergence Culture tend to efface concerns of political economy in their unilateral acclaim of participatory culture. Convergence Culture hinges on the same ideals and deploys similar celebratory rhetoric than Wikinomics and We Think. Whereas Jenkins derives its evidence mostly from virtual grass roots communities subverting mainstream media, and Tapscott, Williams and Leadbeater indiscriminately juxtapose online brand communities to nonprofit virtual collectives, both argue the mutual benefits of producers and consumers operating in the same electronic realm. The hidden “magic” of Web 2.0 technologies remains conspicuously unquestioned by all promoters, whether business gurus or cultural experts. They all claim a brave new world where the spirits of commonality are finally merged with the interests of capitalism.

We think that new models of convergence culture demand new modes of divergent criticism, unravelling the strategies of cooptation. Rather than defending or attacking the cult(ure) of participation, mass creativity or co-creation, we urge a more critical awareness of socioeconomic implications of these emerging trends. Despite the convergence of companies, business interests, technological platforms, cultural actors and other agents, it remains essential to untangle the succinct positions and interests of various players. Technological systems, like labour relations and consumer positions, are increasingly implied rather than manifest (Schaefer and Durham, 2007). This is the power of technologies and regulatory systems governing our everyday lives and defining individual identities vis-à-vis collective identities. We need to carefully dismantle the claims of Wikinomics, We-think and Convergence Culture in order to better understand what kind of brave new worlds we are welcomed to."


  1. Cluetrain Manifesto