Sunday, August 16, 2009

Stations of the cross: The tenth anniversary of The Cluetrain Manifesto

The notion that Jesus is the most important person that ever lived is not necessarily rooted in religious belief but rather in the acceptance of his centrality in the calendar of the western world. People who might otherwise disagree on the meaning of Jesus will all agree on what year we are in. While this value is arbitrary, it does have meaning. And an artificial and incorrect calculation of the date of his supposed birth led to a deep millenarianism one thousand and again two thousand years later. The most recent pre-millennial tension was at its height ten years ago. In late 1999 the dotcom bubble was still inflating and Y2K was approaching. Though the latter was the butt of million jokes and millions had been spent on remediation, no-one could honestly say how the millennium bug might manifest itself.

Into this frenzied atmosphere came a book called The Cluetrain Manifesto that defined what 1999 meant. Written by four American business-savvy geeks (Rick Levine, Christopher Locke, Doc Searls and David Weinberger), the book was Weber’s Protestant work ethic updated for the end of the 20th century. Its Lutheran overtones were shown by the 95 theses it posted to the paywalls of the Internet. Most of the 95 dealt with the failure of corporate culture to see how the connectedness of the web was transforming the marketplace. Their message was summed up in the first thesis: “markets are conversations”.

Despite the buzz around the best-selling book, the markets did not pay immediate attention. The Y2K tensions dissipated when nothing much happened on 1 January 2000 (or on the other event horizon two months later on 29 February), but the dotcoms crashed in a vainglorious blaze later that year. The death of the new world order was confirmed the following year when the Twin Towers came crashing down. Business continued in its mostly one-way conversation mode.

Yet despite predicting none of this, Cluetrain has retained its status as an influential tract. It did get many things right, including understanding the power of the networks and how hyperlinks subvert hierarchies. Ten years on, it is still a much quoted work. Its idea of conversation has taken a new and instantaneous global edge with the social networks of web 2.0. Cluetrain predicted this too: “through the Internet people are discovering and inventing new ways to share relevant knowledge with blinding speed.”

In July Jeff Jarvis said big companies such as Microsoft, Dell, Sun, Comcast are beginning to get the message. They have all been enriched by enabling their people to talk with us as people, says Jarvis. In a Club Troppo piece about Adam Smith and intellectual property, Nicholas Gruen wrote that Smith would have understood the “markets are conversations” meme as the web2.0 engine is the same as that Smith saw behind society “the dialectic of human sociality.”

But as Stilgherrian pointed out a few weeks ago, there is a contradiction inherent in the manifesto. Many people have read the first thesis round the wrong way and think that “all conversations are markets”. The problem, says Stil, is that the focus of The Cluetrain Manifesto is business and markets. “All that buying and selling stuff. Other important conversations in human society are being forgotten,” he says.

The concern is that the public spheres of social networks are becoming polluted by a nasty power law of marketing agendas. But writing in the new 10th anniversary edition released this year, one of the original Cluetrain authors Christopher Locke retains an optimism despite these difficulties: "It's hard to imagine the Era of Total Cluelessness coming to a close. But try. Try hard. Because only imagination can finally bring the curtain down."

Jesus may yet want Cluetrain for a Sunbeam.

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