From the Cluetrain Manifesto to Social Media

Wednesday, January 19, 2011
File under: The Library

I recently finished reading the “Cluetrain Manifesto” my friend Leo (a.k.a. thinkberg) pointed me to. Originally published in 1999 during the dot-com bubble, it was really fun reading it now, more than ten years later. (Although one could have probably condensed the text into about a third of its original length.)

For those of you who were as ignorant as me (or who were just too young in 1999 to care), the book is all about how the Internet could transform the current state of business to get back to a place where it’s more about people having actual conversations as opposed to mass produced, mass marketed goods being shoved down customer’s throats.

“Markets are Conversations” is one of the main mantras of the book, the other two possibly being “Rediscover your Human Voice” and “Removing the Firewalls that Separate Customers from Employees”.

The authors argue that originally (back when we were still living in small huts in the forest), markets were all about conversations. People would meet at markets, exchange news, talk to one another and have real conversations with the people they are doing business with. The people who built something usually also were the ones who knew everything about their business.

According to the authors, everything went downhill starting with the industrial revolution. Production processes were streamlined such that workers didn’t need to know much about their craft. Just as workers became dehumanized and exchangeable, so did customers. No longer were you talking to individual customers, instead talked to focus groups through one-way ad campaigns.

Back in 1999, the authors of the Cluetrain Manifesto saw the possibility to change all this with the Internet. They said that the ease with which people can connect and communicate on the Internet allows companies to re-engage in actual conversations with their customers, but also to have their employees themselves reconnect to one another. The hyperlink itself defies hierarchy as it can connect different parts without requiring getting permission from anyone.

Their vision was a world where there is no place for companies with a rigid hierarchy, built like a fortress to keep the employees and customers apart.

For me, the most interesting part of reading the book was that it actually predates the whole social media movement of the last years. The Internet of the book mostly consists of static web sites, email, mailing lists, and usenet news groups (any one still knows what that is? Actually, it was/is kind of a decentralized feed forward discussion forum, made more or less obsolete by faster Internet connections. I think Thunderbird can still connect to a usenet server if you want to. Just go File > New > Other Account and select “Newsgroup account”) Actually, blogs weren’t mainstream yet: Blogger was launched on August 23, 1999, LiveJournal on April 15, 1999.

They also didn’t have Twitter, Facebook, Flickr, or YouTube, and no Wikipedia.

So where are we know? I think part of what they have said actually came true. Customers have definitely become more connected. For every product that is launched, you can find thousands of blog posts, forum discussions, etc. to get first hand information about how that product really is. Some companies certainly have become more open, are active on Twitter, trying to engage in actual conversations with their customers.

On the other hand, for many companies, it’s still business as usual. You seldom see some guy working for a company participate in those discussions to give unfiltered first-hand information. Companies which come closest to the scenario described in the Cluetrain Manifesto are probably companies whose products are developed under an Open Source scheme. There, it is pretty common to be very active on bug trackers, mailing lists, etc.

Also concerning the removal of the Wall between employees and customers, it seems that most companies are still clinging to that strict separation. Sun has been quite open about allowing customers to see inside the company, but right now we’re are seeing how all these pages are overhauled to fit the Oracle corporate identity. Also, in all the research institutions I have worked, there was definite pressure to move from whatever web page you have to one which conforms to the corporate identity. Which is of course not a bad thing in itself, only that this usually also means that you have to use the official CMS, and depending on how lucky you get (at one institute, this was some overpriced more or less hand-written little thing whose web interface only worked with the Internet Explorer), this can seriously stifle your creativity. Since we’ve switched to TYPO3 at TU Berlin, most people have given up on maintaining their page because the whole process seems too complex (which is not just the problem with TYPO3, but also with what’s involved to get an account for that, and so on.)

So are we done with the Cluetrain Manifesto? Certainly not. I think Twitter and Facebook have shown us new ways to have conversations on the web, to find and share information in real time, but I think there is still room for improvement and the search for the best metaphor for open virtual conversations.

Twitter has shown us the value of having explorable and discoverable conversations in real time (Having tweets containing your user name show up automatically as well as being able to have RSS feeds on search terms is a great thing), but Twitter as a whole is still a bit too unstructured (every tried following a conversation?). Facebook has more structure but is currently forcing its users to move from a private to a more public model of conversations with all the friction to be expected. I’m also not convinced that a monolithic closed platform is not the right way to go. After all, the “Internet way” is decentralized systems built on open standards.

I think the Cluetrain Manifesto is still spot on at its core: It’s about finding a human voice and having real conversations between real people.

Posted by Mikio L. Braun at 2011-01-19 20:12:00 +0000

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