Do Penguins have Long Tails?

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Am I part of the Long Tail? I guess so, given the fact that I recently found – after a profound search – a German website on which I could order Schlagende Wetter. This is a long lost CD from 1982 by Kowalski, a band from the industrial Ruhr area that played so loud during […]

Am I part of the Long Tail? I guess so, given the fact that I recently found – after a profound search – a German website on which I could order Schlagende Wetter. This is a long lost CD from 1982 by Kowalski, a band from the industrial Ruhr area that played so loud during concerts that I’m still missing pieces of conversations.
Still at the beginning of the cycle is the writer Philip Pullman. Although he published the first part of his absolutely brilliant His Dark Materials trilogy already in 1996, his real world fame yet has to come. It certainly will, with the filming of the The Golden Compass, due for the end of this year.
Pullman is said to be writing all of his stories in a small wooden shed at the bottom of his garden; a poetical cliché with an intuitive appeal. Perfectly isolated, decoupled from the rest of the world, Pullman apparently gains his best insights, creating this unique universe that underpins his books. It brings us back to a discussion that we already had a few times before: do results really improve if more people work on it? Or – to make it more concrete – in the era of open innovation, open source and web 2.0: can a whole crowd of people collaboratively create a book that will still be ordered twenty-five years from now?

If we assess the results of A Million Penguins – a joint experiment of Penguin publishers and the University of Leicester – we might be inclined to give a positive answer. But not because the final novel is such a fantastic read.
It’s not, believe me.
But the psychological and social lessons would do just fine as a standard work. You would expect something noteworthy to happen anyway, when 1500 writers join hands, using a collaborative wiki to produce a novel in exactly one month. And all of that without any engagements up front, no structure, no vision, no direction. With that, it is just plain luck that writers typically don’t have any ego problems and – without exception – show their vulnerable sides while having meaningful, emphatic dialogues with their fellow human beings.
The resulting novel is a bizarre mix of styles and unexpected turns. I once learned that the first sentence of a book determines its success. Well, there are plenty of surprise openings. My favorite: “Fluffy the cat was both alive and dead. It was a fairly tricky position for a cat to be in, but as Fluffy didn’t know any better she didn’t seem too concerned.
There’s not much more to be said about life. But never mind that. This is only the beginning sentence of the fifth paragraph of the first section. In the same section we end up in a fuzzy bar scene in Riga, we meet a hump whale that is curiously watching how giant shrimps with white teeth circle a ship wreck and we encounter many more subjects, persons and situations. And we haven’t even talked about the next six sections, in which the pandemonium happily evolves further. Nice as an account of a month filled with feverish, liquor-inspired nightmares. But insignificant as a coherent, appealing result.
With early experiments on the Internet like this one, you are bound to crash into vandalism and corny jokes. While the novel developed itself, it had to deal with pornography and pointless talk. Also, one writer set himself up as an inexhaustible protagonist of bananas, for some mysterious reason replacing all main characters and storylines by bananas. In the true Web 2.0 style, this was subject to an online discussion which eventually lead to exile in a separate novel.
So clearly, a good book does not evolve spontaneously through involving as many contributors as possible. Even so, in business a proposal will not automatically be more successful through the Power of the Crowd. And from my own experience within Capgemini’s knowledge management, I know that a flexible, collaborative knowledge platform does not automatically trigger a flow of new, superior knowledge assets.
In all cases, it is still a matter of leadership: the vision and drive of inspired individuals eventually makes the difference between a screaming pandemonium and a focused, appealing result. And yes, maybe we need some quality time in a lonely garden shed before we unleash our materials to Web 2.0.
That many eyeballs subsequently can help to make the final product better, more correct and complete, is without a doubt. But they will gather around the core that is already there, much like a halo of light. It finally brings us back to Eric Raymond, chronicler of Open Source: “I think that the cutting edge of open-source software will belong to people who start from individual vision and brilliance, then amplify it through the effective construction of voluntary communities of interest”.
I rest my case. Linux had Linus Torvals. Apache had Robert McCool and Brian Behlendorf. Jboss had Marc Fleury. All gifted individuals with a huge halo around them on the Internet. Somebody should write a book about it.
As long as it doesn’t feature bananas.

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