Wikinomics 4: the prosumers

Once again it is time for a post on Wikinomics: How Mass Collaboration Changes Everything, (co-author) Don Tapscott's take on the future of commerce. In this installment we cover the "Prosumers.

Once again it is time for a post on Wikinomics: How Mass Collaboration Changes Everything, (co-author) Don Tapscott's take on the future of commerce. In this installment we cover the "Prosumers." Let me reiterate that this series is not a substitute for Mr. Tapscott's book—it's more of a taste. If you like the taste, I strongly recommend consuming the book directly.

Prosumers (producer-consumers) are consumers who hack (change/improve/combine) products. Lego Mindstorms is probably the clearest example of consumer hacking. Mindstorms is a robot-building kit aimed at teenagers. Within three weeks of its release in 1998, hundreds of adult geeks (who'd been waiting for something like this all their lives) unholstered their soldering irons and began enhancing its hardware. Others reprogrammed its "Intelligent Bricks" to enable new kinds of robotic behavior. Many posted their creations to websites for the benefit of others. When Lego got wind of this, it cried havoc and let loose the lawyers. Fortunately, however, it soon realized that the hackers were a valuable asset: They were providing free research that could be fed directly into Lego's product development pipeline—which is in fact what happened and continues to happen to this day.

The Mindstorms experience is not unique. Don Tapscott puts forward music—specifically, remixes—as a compelling example of prosumption. Combining The White Album with The Black Album (Jay-Z's smash hit) to produce The Grey Album (get it?) is but one example. (Apparently, The Gray Album sounds spectacular. I'm willing to stipulate this as long as you don't make me listen to it.) For better or worse, the music companies haven't responded to music hackers the way Lego responded to Mindstorms hackers. The attorneys have been fierce in rejecting the "fair use" argument, even for cases in which the piece of music used is as brief as two seconds. Cease-and-desist letters abound. As a result, a possible tsunami of musical creativity is nowhere close to realizing its potential—and thousands of remix listeners who might otherwise become curious about (and purchase) "source" music (like The White Album and The Black Album)...never will.

So What?

Don Tapscott's thesis is that you should embrace prosumption as a source of innovation. Toward that end, you should make your product easy to disassemble and create a hacking toolset with which it can be "edited." Foster an ecosystem of hackers in which you participate but which you do not try to control. Finally, give them strong incentives to stay: Return some of the value they generate to members of the community. If you can do all of this, you'll have hundreds—perhaps thousands—of passionate researchers all working to improve your product. Not a bad place to be.

Well, maybe. The risk in all of this, of course, is that innovations may be developed out in the open, where your competitors can see them. As you might expect, your only hope is to commercialize them more rapidly than they do and capture the first-mover advantage. (This may be a good place to be, but it also sounds like a wild ride.)

Of course, not all enterprises make hackable goods. Definite yes: Lego and music. Probable no: Chloroform, cinder blocks and yogurt. Prosumption may be attractive and powerful, but it's not for everyone.

Next time: The New Alexandrians.

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