The revolution will be contributed

A decent corporate citizen watches his world crumble.

I run a small publishing company. I’m trying to make money by selling content that I create and charging advertisers for space in between the stories. I pay writers and photographers above-market rates. I provide internships to students, give wannbes a crack at getting published and pay fees to numerous professional bodies to keep my industry in good health.

I am, in other words, a decent corporate citizen, doing my bit to create employment, contributing to my wider community, making products that I hope have enduring value.

So far, so smug.

And so far, so stoopid.

As fast I’m spending money to become the next Kerry Packer, Web 2.0 is dismantling my industry and remaking markets with impressive disregard for the incumbents. On the one hand, that’s super news for an entrepreneurial niche publisher like me. Surely there must be opportunities here, I tell myself daily, if not hourly.

The trouble is, the two areas of my expertise—content creation and advertising sales—are under direct attack. Google, Wikipedia, MySpace, Flickr, Facebook, Twitter and now Flutter don’t need to pay a cent for what they publish, tapping not just into an existing swathe of previously content but also into that vast, underestimated community of volunteers, enthusiasts, wannabes and narcissistic teenagers. Who knew that the world was so gagging to publish?

Well, I did, but I guess I never believed that anyone was prepared to read it. Not only was I wrong, I was dangerously wrong.

As for advertising, well we’re damn good at doing that, better than most I suspect. But even here, we’re being outclassed by Trade Me’s ability to deliver measurable, targeted advertising that’s cheaper than a Herald classified.

I suppose it could be worse: I could be the Herald.

The Wikipedia Revolution, therefore, has become the latest in a long list that I’ve devoured to make sense of it all—and save my sorry arse. In no particular order, here’s what I’ve learned from the book (which is terrific by the way):

You can (and must) change your business to survive. Wikipedia was the third or perhaps fourth iteration of a business started by founder Jimmy Wales. Each was successful in its own small way but provided key lessons that Wales built upon to establish the world’s largest encyclopaedia.

It’s not as easy as it looks. Many attempts by major newspapers to emulate the wiki method of newsgathering have crashed on the rocks of saboteurs, pornographers, spammers, crackers and bots. Behind Wikipedia’s apparent openness is a sophisticated editing infrastructure—and trust in the wisdom of crowds.

It’s not actually a business. Wikipedia is funded through donations and attempts to commercialise it through advertising led to major division, including the secession of the Spanish arm. Volunteers and commercialism are uneasy bedfellows.

There is no one true model … yet. Wikipedia has numerous competitors, including a resurgent Britannica. Also, Wikipedia’s volunteer model is starting to creak, with some countries’ updates slowing to a snail’s pace. Some editors have become a self-appointed, dogmatic and quarrelsome bureaucracy. The grand experiment may yet fail.

Which leads me to one final thought. The book is written by an insider and suffers a little from uncritical awe. But then we’re in the middle of a revolution called the Internet. The definitive history is some years off.