Book authors and eating one's own dogfood

Mike Linksvayer is actually riffing on a remark in an article on free software, but this remark stayed with me last week when I attended a free talk at the State Library of Victoria by Charles Leadbeater on his new book We-think: The Power of Mass Creativity.

In software development they tend to call it eating your own dogfood but it’s pretty much the same as “practice what you preach”.

Leadbeater put that the motto of the current generation is “We think because we are“ and that all this mass collaboration that people are doing for, gasp, reasons other than making money, will be

Insert standard caveats about privacy. quality and loss of earnings.

Based on Leadbeater’s talk I am not sure the book would tell me a lot new (although I did appreciate his historical perspective – often lacking in commentary on the effects of the internet, as he noted), but then, I am probably not his target audience. I am probably more like his step-son who rolled his eyes and walked out halfway through viewing his YouTube book promo. What he’s saying is not really news to me; it’s just life as it is currently being lived.

As far as I can tell from Amazon’s “search inside” feature, Leadbeater only mentions Creative Commons once, in the “We-think business” chapter, with this parenthetical explanation: “Creative Commons is a form of copyright that allows users to share content very easily.” He also doesn’t seem to go into detail about the ideas of copyleft or the history of the GPL in the free software movement.

We-Think will succeed not because it is noble, altruistic or morally uplifting but because it is the most effective way to organise mass innovation at scale. It works. As more share-holder-owned companies are drawn towards more open approaches to innovation, so they will have to experiment with more shared ownership of ideas.

This strikes me as quite a cop-out to the power of the legal idea of copyleft and its influence. Although now free software prospers under non-copyleft licenses (like the BSD, MIT or LGPL – these don’t require that derivatives are released under the same license), there is no guarantee (and IMO it is unlikely) that history would have turned out the way it has, if the GPL had not existed. Likewise Wikipedia and its use of the GFDL with a copyleft clause. It could have been a whole different kettle of fish.

I think this book is for reassuring people who feel troubled or or feel a twinge of concern about “web 2.0” but aren’t sure why.

Back to the talk.

At question time I asked why Leadbeater had chosen to write a book, given he was extolling the virtues of all this free sharing, and books are a rather traditional top-down respect-my-authoritay tradition. I asked if it was just for pragmatic reasons, or if he thought that books were actually really conversational in nature. He replied that he just wanted to communicate his ideas with the widest possible audience.

I am not entirely convinced.

There are still lots of good reasons to write a book, let’s not doubt that for a second:

  1. traditional source of authority
  2. make money (unlikely as it is, it’s still possible)
  3. reach an audience that is (still) influenced by books of ideas

Reaching the widest possible audience mostly relates to #3, but really, if you wanted to reach the widest possible audience, wouldn’t you release it as a book and also as a free PDF download? A la Cory Doctorow:

Practicing what he preaches, all of the author’s books, including this one, are simultaneously released in print and on the Internet under Creative Commons licenses that encourage their reuse and sharing. He argues persuasively that this practice has considerably increased his sales by enlisting readers to promote his work.

“This one” is Content: Selected Essays on Technology, Creativity, Copyright, and the Future of the Future (Amazon, download), which I am looking forward to reading. (I’m still halfway through The Long Tail — only two years behind!) I’m still mulling over purchasing a copy or just reading it on my Palm. I read Lawrence Lessig’s Free Culture on my Palm and it genuinely counts as a book that changed my life — it energised and concentrated the vague warm fuzzies I had from editing Wikipedia into something much more purposeful and righteous. OTOH, I really do like books as physical objects. So, we’ll see.

Back to Leadbeater… while I definitely think he should release his book under a Creative Commons license, in the meantime what he has is a comment-less blog (wait, is that really a blog?), the first three chapters in PDF (under no specific license, tch tch) and a wiki, although it is not even linked from the book website, I think.

A blog without comments is not conversational. PDFs are not conversational. A wiki is conversational, but you do need to let people know it exists.

I got the photo for his Wikipedia article that I wanted. (I asked him if he had ever read it. He said no, on the advice of Jimmy Wales, which is good advice.) Now that’s an even easier way to eat your own dogfood (not to mention get good free publicity on a top 10 website): if you have a Wikipedia article, release a flattering press photo of yourself under a free license!

20 September, 2008 •



Brianna, have you thought about writing a book yourself? By the way, I love the Identica snapshot!

Evan Prodromou · 20. September 2008, 08:56


Evan, thanks for the compliment, but having a single idea suitably expressible in book format is usually a prerequisite to writing a book.

pfctdayelise · 20. September 2008, 09:35

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