7 Books that Will Change the Way You Understand the Internet

W. Somerset Maugham once said, “When I read a book I seem to read it with my eyes only, but now and then I come across a passage, perhaps only a phrase, which has a meaning for me, and it becomes part of me.” There are passages in each of these seven books that hold true for me. What other books would you recommend for a must-read list for people wanting to learn more about the changes the Internet is having on our society?

ClueTrain Manifesto

The Cluetrain Manifesto began as a Web site (www.cluetrain.com) in 1999 when the authors, who have worked variously at IBM, Sun Microsystems, the Linux Journal, and NPR, posted 95 theses that pronounced what they felt was the new reality of the networked marketplace. For example, thesis no. 2: “Markets consist of human beings, not demographic sectors”; thesis no. 20: “Companies need to realize their markets are often laughing. At them”; thesis no. 62: “Markets do not want to talk to flacks and hucksters. They want to participate in the conversations going on behind the corporate firewall”; thesis no. 74: “We are immune to advertising. Just forget it.” The book enlarges on these themes through seven essays filled with dozens of stories and observations about how business gets done in America and how the Internet will change it all. While Cluetrain will strike many as loud and over the top, the message itself remains quite relevant and unique.

The Long Tail

Wired editor Anderson declares the death of “common culture”—and insists that it’s for the best. Why don’t we all watch the same TV shows, like we used to? Because not long ago, “we had fewer alternatives to compete for our screen attention,” he writes. Smash hits have existed largely because of scarcity: with a finite number of bookstore shelves and theaters and Wal-Mart CD racks, “it’s only sensible to fill them with the titles that will sell best.” Today, Web sites and online retailers offer seemingly infinite inventory, and the result is the “shattering of the mainstream into a zillion different cultural shards.” These “countless niches” are market opportunities for those who cast a wide net and de-emphasize the search for blockbusters. It’s a provocative analysis and almost certainly on target—though Anderson’s assurances that these principles are equally applicable outside the media and entertainment industries are not entirely convincing. The book overuses its examples from Google, Rhapsody, iTunes, Amazon, Netflix and eBay, and it doesn’t help that most of the charts of “Long Tail” curves look the same. But Anderson manages to explain a murky trend in clear language, giving entrepreneurs and the rest of us plenty to think about.

Wikinomics

The word “wiki” means “quick” in Hawaiian, and here author and think tank CEO Tapscott (The Naked Corporation), along with research director Williams, paint in vibrant colors the quickly changing world of Internet togetherness, also known as mass or global collaboration, and what those changes mean for business and technology. Wikipedia, the online encyclopedia written, compiled, edited and re-edited by “ordinary people” is the most ubiquitous example, and its history makes remarkable reading. But also considered are lesser-known success stories of global collaboration that star Procter & Gamble, BMW, Lego and a host of software and niche companies. Problems arise when the authors indulge an outsized sense of scope-“this may be the birth of a new era, perhaps even a golden one, on par with the Italian renaissance, or the rise of Athenian democracy”-while acknowledging only reluctantly the caveats of weighty sources like Microsoft’s Bill Gates. Methods for exploiting the power of collaborative production are outlined throughout, an alluring compendium of ways to throw open previously guarded intellectual property and to invite in previously unavailable ideas that hide within the populace at large. This clear and meticulously researched primer gives business leaders big leg up on mass collaboration possibilities; as such, it makes a fine next-step companion piece to James Surowiecki’s 2004 bestseller The Wisdom of Crowds.

The Wisdom of Crowds

While our culture generally trusts experts and distrusts the wisdom of the masses, New Yorker business columnist Surowiecki argues that “under the right circumstances, groups are remarkably intelligent, and are often smarter than the smartest people in them.” To support this almost counterintuitive proposition, Surowiecki explores problems involving cognition (we’re all trying to identify a correct answer), coordination (we need to synchronize our individual activities with others) and cooperation (we have to act together despite our self-interest). His rubric, then, covers a range of problems, including driving in traffic, competing on TV game shows, maximizing stock market performance, voting for political candidates, navigating busy sidewalks, tracking SARS and designing Internet search engines like Google. If four basic conditions are met, a crowd’s “collective intelligence” will produce better outcomes than a small group of experts, Surowiecki says, even if members of the crowd don’t know all the facts or choose, individually, to act irrationally. “Wise crowds” need (1) diversity of opinion; (2) independence of members from one another; (3) decentralization; and (4) a good method for aggregating opinions. The diversity brings in different information; independence keeps people from being swayed by a single opinion leader; people’s errors balance each other out; and including all opinions guarantees that the results are “smarter” than if a single expert had been in charge. Surowiecki’s style is pleasantly informal, a tactical disguise for what might otherwise be rather dense material. He offers a great introduction to applied behavioral economics and game theory.

The Search: How Google and Its Rivals Rewrote the Rules of Business and Transformed Our Culture

Rather than write a book strictly about the rise of Google as a business, technology journalist Battelle targets his research on the concept of Internet search, beginning the book with a discussion of an abstract idea he terms the “Database of Intentions,” defined as the sum total of all queries that pour into search engines daily, revealing the intricacies and idiosyncrasies of our culture. Though most of the book is devoted to the search engine giant (which Battelle reports corners 51 percent of the search engine market), the author also includes chapters on “Search, Before Google” and the “Who, What, Where, Why, When. And How (much)” of search. Battelle is at his best when describing the creation of Google, especially through the yin-yang personalities of its founders, Larry Page and Sergey Brin, and in describing the company’s culture. Though Battelle’s descriptions of Internet search technology can get too technical for readers without a computer science background, the book is a deeply researched and nimbly reported look at how search has defined the Internet and how it will continue to be a tremendous reflection of culture.

An Army of Davids: How Markets and Technology Empower Ordinary People to Beat Big Media, Big Government, and Other Goliaths

In this testament to the power of the little guy, law professor and blogger Reynolds gleefully hails the emergence of a new entrepreneurial class resulting from the democratizing power of technology-the manifestation of his observation that “a society that’s rich and free will have citizens who-entirely on their own-develop a wide range of skills.” Among the skills he cites are citizen terrorist-busters, hackers and average Joe techies who set up phony jihad sites to foil terrorism in the U.S. Others have taken on big media, forcing newspapers and networks into something “akin to what happened to the Church during the Reformation.” Reynolds shows how technology opened up markets to software companies in Poland and to filmmakers and musicians in Africa. Proclaiming good blogging as a combination of “rapid response times” and “personal voice,” Reynolds praises the explosion of cyber-self expression, seeing it as yet another way to proliferate information and build knowledge among communities. And while Reynolds may seem naïve in ignoring any potential negatives that could arise from widespread, unmitigated, technology-enabled empowerment and does little to touch upon the ethical implications of the everyman becoming a superman, he brings a contagious sense of optimism to this “new reality.”

The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference

“The best way to understand the dramatic transformation of unknown books into bestsellers, or the rise of teenage smoking, or the phenomena of word of mouth or any number of the other mysterious changes that mark everyday life,” writes Malcolm Gladwell, “is to think of them as epidemics. Ideas and products and messages and behaviors spread just like viruses do.” Although anyone familiar with the theory of memetics will recognize this concept, Gladwell’s The Tipping Point has quite a few interesting twists on the subject.

For example, Paul Revere was able to galvanize the forces of resistance so effectively in part because he was what Gladwell calls a “Connector”: he knew just about everybody, particularly the revolutionary leaders in each of the towns that he rode through. But Revere “wasn’t just the man with the biggest Rolodex in colonial Boston,” he was also a “Maven” who gathered extensive information about the British. He knew what was going on and he knew exactly whom to tell. The phenomenon continues to this day–think of how often you’ve received information in an e-mail message that had been forwarded at least half a dozen times before reaching you.

Gladwell develops these and other concepts (such as the “stickiness” of ideas or the effect of population size on information dispersal) through simple, clear explanations and entertainingly illustrative anecdotes, such as comparing the pedagogical methods of Sesame Street and Blue’s Clues, or explaining why it would be even easier to play Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon with the actor Rod Steiger. Although some readers may find the transitional passages between chapters hold their hands a little too tightly, and Gladwell’s closing invocation of the possibilities of social engineering sketchy, even chilling, The Tipping Point is one of the most effective books on science for a general audience in ages. It seems inevitable that “tipping point,” like “future shock” or “chaos theory,” will soon become one of those ideas that everybody knows–or at least knows by name.

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