Last fall, Martin Clifford-CEO of the web community juggernaut Wis.dm, informed me that I was hopelessly out of date regarding the phenomena of web communities and hinted that due to my advanced years I might never comprehend the impact of many-to-many publishing. It’s true that most of my experience is in traditional forms of one-to-many publishing. However, I’ve always loved a good challenge so I began my exploration of the role of communities in the creation of content.. Early in my explorations, I came across the We Are Smarter Than Me project. This project is the joint effort of Pearson Educational Publishing, Wharton, MIT, and Shared Insights. The goal was to form a community that would write a book about how communities could change and enhance the way that companies do business. I tuned into the “Buzz” to get a sense of the passion of the participants And then, I joined the community and contributed a small section on the importance of word-of-mouth in the marketing of services. As the project progressed, I watched its progress and waited eagerly to see what would happen when the many-to-many model was invoked to produce a traditional business book.

To hear first hand accounts of the project, I travelled to the Community 2.0 conference in Las Vegas. Barry Libert of Shared Insights and Tim Moore of Pearson Educational Publishing presented a fascinating progress report and a conversation with co-founder Jon Spector (soon to be CEO of the Conference Board) filled in some additional information.

The participants are to be congratulated for commissioning the project as a pure experiment. As Mr. Moore said, “I just wanted to see what would happen” As one might imagine, the interaction between web communities and large esteemed institutions presented some interesting challenges. Not surprisingly, the first significant issue arose when Pearson faxed their contract to Shared Insights. While the contract was entirely appropriate for traditional author teams, indemnification clauses took on entirely new meaning when the work of hundreds or thousands of author/contributors would be scrutinized. The prolonged wrangling broke the project’s early momentum. It was assumed that the Academic Dream Team of Pearson’s business authors and the faculties of Wharton and MIT would produce numerous thoughtfully written content modules. Surprisingly, none of the authors or profs chose to participate in the project. The project team reverted to Plan B by sending participation invitations to a large list of people affiliated with the sponsoring institutions. The response was enthusiastic and the community began to grow. Current membership is approximately 3500 with 650 individual wiki posts.

As the active participation increased, the project team learned another important lesson. Suddenly the community wanted to take over the project leadership and asked the project team to step aside. Even though the project team knew alot about community dynamics, they weren’t ready for their own community to be so assertive and found it difficult to relinquish control. When they did step back, the community flourished.
How did the book by community turn out? One speaker reported that the journey was more interesting than the destination meaning that the content created was plentiful but uneven in quality and style. To yield an acceptable business book, it would be necessary to hire an accomplished professional author who would also handle the fact checking process.

The open questions and lessons learned from this project.

  1. Why didn’t the authors and professors participate?
    Possible explanations included:
    Generation Gap- Authors and profs didn’t grow up with MySpace or Facebook. Web Communities are foreign to their professional milieu.
    Status Issues- They are used to being the authority and weren’t willing to have their writings publicly challenged. And they have already made their reputation so that they have little status to gain.
    No Financial Benefit- Their time is very valuable and they expect to be paid for their efforts.
    Lack of Passion or Connection with the Project- Community participation is not their avocation nor were they passionate about the topic.
    Those that did participate did so out of a passion for the topic and seemed most motivated by the opportunity to build their reputation within the community. For many members, community participation is one of their hobbies. And they seemed not to desire any remuneration for their contributions.
    Observation- Just like in the early days of the Internet, there is currently more cache attached to eyeballs and recognition than to traditional financial rewards. However, there are significant costs to forming, hosting and moderating communities. And the work of cummunities can be very valuable to companies of all sorts. New business models are emerging that will manage the costs and reflect the value of the contributions.
  2. Given the uneven content and need to bring in a professional author, should anyone even try to write another book by committee?
    It depends on the type of Book!! Wikipedia has demonstrated that this model is very effective in creating a comprehensive reference work. ( I suppose that some purists would argue that Wikipedia isn’t really a book but rather a collection of content modules), For traditional authored book projects, communities might play a valuable role in helping authors research topics that are outside of their primary expertise and in reviewing the authors work for accuracy and clarity.
  3. Will there be instances where community created content modules will compete with traditional published works?
    Given the Google world that we live in, consumers of information often seek a terse answer to a specific question. And there is a definite trend towards the integration of content with the information consumers’ workflows. For these information consumers, A well structured repository of content modules is potentially more valuable than traditional books.
  4. So was the project aiming at the wrong goal?
    Perhaps! Old habits die hard and many people in my generation have books to thank for alot of their professional knowledge. Maybe the goal of the project should have been to develop an outstanding repository of content modules and resources that could become an authorative source of information about communities and their role in changing and enhancing the ways that companies do business. In the long run, the mission critical task is creating outstanding intellectual property. Creating multiple media versions of that IP will allow publishers to reach a wider range of customers.
  5. Will the many-to-many content model put traditional publishers out of business?
    There is much more opportunity than risk for publishers.
    Most of us would agree that we already suffer from information overload. Communities have the potential to raise that overload to an even higher level. Information consumers want to know that the content they are reading is accurate and authoritative. This has been the primary domain of publishers for many years. If publishers find new ways to harness the wisdom of crowds in creating new content and improving existing content, their future is bright. If not, someone else will seize the opportunity. And if they trivialize new methods of content creation as being less pure and authoritative than their time-tested editorial processes, they will face serious consequences. If you’re not convinced, just ask your favorite encyclopedia publisher!!
  6. That is my report on many-to-many versus one-to-many content creation models. Now I’m trying to figure out whether the few-to-few model refers to custom publishing or to an underperforming web community.
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