The Starfish and the Spider

The Starfish and the Spider, Ori Brafman and Rod A. Beckstrom. A number of “web 2.0 people” have recommended this book, some citing it as a huge influence. Coming at it with those expectations, I was somewhat dissapointed, not at the concept itself—how decentralized organizations can wield great power, how they happen, what they do well, etc.—but rather in the way everything is glanced over and at the transparent retorical devices they use. Some of those glances could have been more detailed, even if only a little, so that when the glancing is done on something you’re interested in, it doesn’t look too thrown together and detract from the subject (which it did for me).

The first such thing that bugged me is when describing the use of P2P networks to share music, the language they use and the way they explain the issue is almost out of the record labels’ talking point handbook where everyone on P2P networks is a pirate, stealing. It’s largely true but P2P is also used in other ways; it can help in getting the word out for smaller bands who do want people to share their music, is used to share computing loads and for legal downloads. Some mention of that and of the abuse of artists that major brands do, while not required for their main point, would have been more balanced without induely slowing down the book.

Another example is when talking with an investor who, in 1995, was repeatedly asked by french investors who was the “president of the internet”. The authors come back again and again with “the french”, “the french investors”, using the oh so easy negative bias most of their american readers will have towards the french to illicit snickers and laughs. Lame.

The last such glancing that bothered me was when explaining how Apple hit the “sweet spot” mix of spider organization and starfish behavior. They say;

Apple also realized that users wanted to share content with one another. It therefore encouraged users to “podcast”, or broadcast their own programming to other users.

Not wrong per se but not quite it either, podcasts existed before iTunes and iTunes launched without podcasts, they simply list them now alongside music. A sharp move, a great success and, yes, arnessing starfish (decentralized) crowd behavior but their phrasing makes it sound like Apple created the whole podcasting thing.

Getting past that, they do otherwise present their theory pretty well, using examples in a variety of fields from Alcoholics Anonymous to IBM using open source through the anti slavery movement in England during the eighteenth century.

Centralized organizations (spiders with a head) have some advantages but can more easily be targeted and defeated by chopping off the head while decentralized organizations and phenomena (starfish) are almost impossible to stop. (fyi: starfish can regrow cut off arms or even, in some cases, a whole starfish from that same arm). The authors present both types well, detail rules on how to build starfish structures, how to promote them, attack them, use them. There’s also a few interesting chapters on catalysts and champions and a very good finish where they show and suggest some solutions on mixing both models like eBay, Amazon, Apple and even Toyota have done.

Conclusion: mild recommendation.