Will free forecasting have its Wiki way?

Now, please be patient – the sting is in the tail. This could have great relevance to your business…..

The industry in which I work – the media – has been decimated by the Internet with billions of dollars of earnings and hundreds of thousands of livelihoods sucked out of traditional publishing by online advertising.

And now the threat comes from the democratisation of content through Web 2.0, where the traditional “top down” approach to content is being removed by a huge army of amateur content providers.

Two books, The Cult of the Amateur by Andrew Keen and The Long Tail by Chris Anderson, present opposite extremes of opinion over the merits of Web 2.0

Keen, with his Luddite hammer firmly in his grip, paints a nightmare Web 2.0 world of hopelessly inept amateurs dessiminating inaccurate garbage which becomes the accepted wisdom because of the power of the Internet.

He attacks Wikipedia, for example, on the grounds that the intellectually challenged are given as much weight as those with expertise and experience.

The Long Tail, on the other hand, argues that while at the micro level mistakes abound in the free online encyclopaedia, the Wisdom of Crowds theory guarantees that it is more or less as accurate as the paid-for Encyclopaedia Britannica. And the beauty of Wikipedia is that you can correct mistakes immediately they are spotted rather than wait for a reprint of Encyclopaedia Britannica or any other paid-for work of reference edited by committees of professional experts, Anderson adds.

I sometimes like to believe Keen’s hope for the future will be realised, which is outlined in the last chapter of his book. This involves a consumer backlash against the rubbish being generated by all the useless amateurs out there who are destroying the media – and also the music and film – industries.

I sometimes prefer Keen’s vision of the future because it would involve the value being retained in the “old media skills” I have spent years acquiring; change is never easy, especially if it comes at the expense of your livelihood.

But if Anderson proves to be more right than Keen (with the truth, as always, likely to be somewhere between the two extremes) what could this mean for the chemicals industry?

Your research departments are already flooded with free news from paid-for services, either legally or illegally acquired.

Why on earth pay for BASF’s financial results when they will appear on Google half an hour after they are released, unless time is such a factor for your business that you need the numbers immediately they are released? If so, then subscribe to a wire service.

The value in paying for exclusive news – and also in-depth and informed analysis written by experienced old hands – remains, provided, of course, the content cannnot be copied or stolen and you are short on ethics.

Equally, revenue is willingly and often freely spent on reports produced by in-house research departments and consultants.

But what if Anderson is more right than he is wrong?

In the future, the Wiki approach could lead to a free way of for, example, predicting when a plant will start up. If the Wisdom of Crowds theory is valid, collective knowledge might prove as accurate as the persistent digging of an experienced old hack.

Supply and demand and also price forecasting could also go the same way. Why pay for a grey hair with years of industry experience to pass down pearls of expensive wisdom from his intellectual mountain top, when, to more or less quote Mulder, the truth is already out there?

It is certainly worth further discussion, and maybe even an experiment. Watch this space…..

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