Cluetrain at 20


This post is by Doc Searls from Doc Searls Weblog


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The Cluetrain Manifesto went online for the world on March 26, 1999. “People of Earth,” it began. Nothing modest about it. 

Chris Locke and David Weinberger both had newsletters with real subscriber bases (Entropy Gradient Reversals and JOHO, respectively). I had a good-size list of email correspondents, and so did Rick Levine. So we put the word out, same day.

And it spread. Like: whoaTom Petzinger’s Cluetrain column The Wall Street Journal called the Manifesto “pretentious, strident and absolutely brilliant,” which threw gas on the fire. Instantly my email traffic jumped from dozens to hundreds a day, where it has remained ever since.

Interesting fact: the only reason I know Tom said that is because it was mentioned in a 2000 interview for Linux Journal that was too long to run at the time and remained buried like a time capsule until 2014, when was exhumed and turned into this seven-part Cluetrain fifteenth anniversary piece. If you want to know lotsa shit about Cluetrain, including more of the origin story than I just told, that’s where to look.

There’s also deeper stuff in it. An example:

Part 2: The Red Pill Story

Linux Journal: What is “Business as Usual” and what’s killing it?

Doc Searls: Business as Usual is the Dilbert cartoon where too much of the world continues to work.

Linux Journal: The PHBs we love to hate.

Doc Searls: Yeah, but it’s more than that. It’s what gives all of us pointy hair.

Linux Journal: Which is?

Doc Searls: There’s a blue pill answer and a red one. The blue pill answer is that companies are clueless and need to start getting the clues from markets. The red pill answer is much deeper and more fundamental. I like The Matrix analogy because the movie’s premise is that reality is a screen saver for something much worse. In Cluetrain we’re saying that what we think about business and markets is actually driven by something much more deep and sinister than the absence of “best practices” or other management disciplines that CEOs neglect to apply. In fact, I’ve come to believe that the Matrix in the movie is a metaphor for marketing. It’s the pleasing but false reality where we live only to serve as batteries for business as usual.

Linux Journal: And that’s the red pill answer?

Doc Searls: That’s part of the answer. The deeper part is about the programming. Business as Usual depends on all of us agreeing to understand business in terms that make us slaves. We’re not conscious of this programming because it’s unconscious. The Industrial Age hasn’t ended, because it lives in our heads. Worse, a repurposed version of it drives much of what we call “the new economy.” We’re still in blue pill territory when we talk about markets as distant, abstract things. At the bottom of the rabbit hole is what markets really are — what we really are. When we go there we see what we forgot when Industry came along and substituted abstractions for reality.

Linux Journal: What are you saying isn’t real?

Doc Searls: Most of what we call “markets” are pure abstractions. We see markets as targets for advertising messages, as creatures like bulls and bears, as battlefields and sports arenas where companies fight like gladiators for territoriesspaces and shares of categories and slices of pies. We give the “market” label to geographies like New York and China, and to demographics like “Men 25-54.” We also give it to characterizations like “upscale suburban Volvo drivers.” Each of these abstractions actually expresses a metaphor that does our thinking and talking for us.

Linux Journal: Give us an example.

Doc Searls: The word “content.” It used to be an catch-all noun for anything that occupied a package. Now we apply it to anything you can distribute over the Net. Why is that? What happened here? Why did “content” suddenly get so big? As a writer, I used to write stories. Back when I was in radio, we ran programs. Bands used to make records. Now all those things are “content,” and every artist is a “content provider.” Like our craft is nothing more than a manufacturing job, and our goods are nothing more than cargo you strap to a skid and load onto trucks. Where did that word come from? Why did we choose it instead of something else, like “goods?”

Linux Journal: So, why?

Doc Searls: Because we conceive business in terms of shipping, even though we’re hardly aware of it. In linguistic terms, our business vocabulary is induced by the conceptual metaphor business is shipping. This has been going on for the better part of two hundred years, and it didn’t stop when the Net showed up. Suddenly here was this fabulous new medium, this shiny new shipping system for everything you can name that ever went through an old medium, plus lots of new stuff. Let’s re-conceive everything as content and carry on with Business as Usual, but with a great new way to move stuff from A to Z, including B to B, B to C and all the rest of it. Just like we did with Television, we can load our content into a channel and address it for delivery to end users through medium that serves as a distribution system or a value chain.

Linux Journal: So when you say somebody “adds value,” you’re using a shipping metaphor.

Doc Searls: Absolutely.

Linux Journal: What’s so bad about that?

Doc Searls: Nothing, as far as it goes. But it doesn’t go very far in a world built on relationships in which shipping stuff from X to X is more a technicality than a fundamental concept. In the industrial world, especially the commercial mass media part of that world, shipping was a very appropriate conceptual metaphor. It gave us a useful vocabulary for describing a world where a goods move great distances between a few producers and millions of consumers. The problem is, when you apply that metaphor in a networked world, with its networked markets, you make the mistake of treating in-your-face customers as distant consumers. They aren’t cattle. They fish-like gullets gulping down products that fall off the end of distribution’s conveyor belt. But we still conceive them that way, or we wouldn’t talk about “aggregating” and “capturing” them. We also wouldn’t talk about “moving content” through the Net as if it were just another medium, like TV, radio and newspapers.

Linux Journal: Is the Net really that different?

Doc Searls: It’s absolutely different because it’s infinitely more than a way to convey crap from producers to consumers. It’s the connected consciousness of the market itself. It makes markets smart by giving customers unprecedented powers, the most fundamental of which is each other — not just an immense choice among suppliers. Ir makes customers extraordinarily powerful, too. If they get pissed off, they can make life hell for the vendor by creating sites like Gapsucks.orgUntied.com, and Burnallgifs.org. One customer with a grudge can bring a hallowed brand to great embarrassment.

Linux Journal: So you’re saying there’s a limit to how far you can stretch the shipping metaphor, because shipping isn’t all that’s happening in the post-industrial world.

Doc Searls: Right.

Linux Journal: When does it end?

Doc Searls: When it fails. When it falls out of fashion. When it comes off as rude behavior, like belching in public or smoking in an elevator. The plain truth is that “content” insults the nature of what it labels. Expressions like “B2B” and ” B2C” — labels for “business-to-business” and “business-to-consumer” — insult the nature of business itself. Ask yourself, do you do business to people or with them? “B2B” might be a useful category, but it has a way of presupposing that all that happens in a B2B business is the moving of goods from B to B. The preposition “to” was chosen for us by the shipping metaphor, which conceives business as shipping, rather than as a relationship.

Linux Journal: But what about the fact that, from the vendor’s perspective, we really do ship a lot of stuff to a lot of customers who buy stuff from us on the Web?

Doc Searls: It’s a fact. But it’s not the only fact. Nor is it the defining fact. What we need to understand — in our bones — is that the Net is not just a few-to-many system. Sure, it supports shipping. Where would Amazon be without it? But shipping is not all that happens. Suddenly the first source and the final customer are one click apart. “Consumers” aren’t a zillion plankton any more. They have names, personal Web pages and email addresses. Supply and demand can talk to each other. They can engage, just like they did for ten thousand years in real markets. That’s why it’s now good business for savvy producers to talk with their markets at every level, and with real human voices, not the robotic “thank you for calling” voice from phone mail hell.

Linux Journal: In the book you make the point that the Industrial Age is only two hundred years old, while markets have been around for thousands of years — and that the Net brings us back into the kind of world we had when markets were tents gathered at crossroads. What’s relevant about those ancient markets today? Isn’t the modern world too radically different?

Doc Searls: It’s not radically different. Two things are relevant about ancient markets. First, they never went away. The real world is full of them. Every farmer’s market reminds us of them. Second, the Net multiplies the power of all their virtues. As a result, markets themselves are much more powerful and smart than ever before. Our business-is-shipping vocabulary forces us to describe a world that excludes or discounts countless new facts of market life. As producers we assume we retain the power to create and organize demand, just as we did a decade or more ago. That just isn’t the case — at least not by traditional means.

Linux Journal: We notice that you created quite a bit of demand for the Cluetrain book.

Doc Searls: Yeah, but we didn’t do it by mass media methods. We did it by hacker’s methods. We wrote something we thought was good and put it out for review. Lots of people agreed that it was good and word spread from there. One reason they agreed was because we spoke for the masses of people who don’t want to be treated like fish in a tank any more. Not for Business. Not for Marketing.

Linux Journal: It also isn’t just producers who are stuck in the shipping metaphor.

Doc Searls: Right. Exactly. As consumers we often still feel powerless in the face of producer insults — just like we did back when all we could do was call a “customer support” 800 number and plead our case to a minimum wage worker who was paid to get rid of us. We’re in a world now that’s very much like that ancient market, that mess of stalls and tents at crossroads in the third world. In markets like those, reputation is extremely important. If the weaver’s cloth falls apart in a few days, or if he’s too big a jerk to deal with, customers spread word in the market, and the effects follow quickly. It’s the same today on the Net.

Linux Journal: What else have we forgotten about ancient markets?

Doc Searls: Mostly their importance. As a social institution, the market was far more important than the church, the government, the military, you name it. For evidence, look at your own surname. There’s a good chance it labels an ancestor’s role in his market. Hunter, Potter, Shoemaker, Mason, Miller, Smith, Tanner, Mason, Cobbler, Fisher, Weaver, Brewer… those names were earned by craft. Those crafts’ contexts were in the marketplace. Mr. Baker baked bread. Mr. Tanner tanned hide, and probably sold leather goods that he made himself. Mrs. Weaver probably wove rugs or garments on a loom she and her family built themselves. Mr. Carpenter was in the furniture or the construction business. All those craftspeople knew their customers by name. The forces that make a market — supply and demand, vendors and customers, producers and consumers — were a handshake apart.

Linux Journal: And the Industrial Revolution put an end to all that.

Doc Searls: Yes. It turned farmers and bakers into die-makers and loom operators: interchangeable parts of corporate machines. As Chris Locke puts it, Industry invented the job. In the Cluetrain book, Rick Levine talks very movingly about craft, and what it really means. Today the word suggests an avocation: a hobby. But our ancestors made their livings with their crafts, and they sold what they made in real-world markets. Rick starts his chapter, “I’m a potter’s son.” And it shows. Rick grew up identifying himself, like his father, with his work, which is programming — even though he now runs a company. Programming is his pottery, his personal craft.

Linux Journal: You call the Industrial Revolution an “interruption.”

Doc Searls: Yes. Industry had few uses for our crafts, but lots of uses for our labor. The social and psychological disruption must have been huge. Many generations have passed since our ancestors left their farms and shops and went to work in factories, mines and offices. We’ve long forgotten the demeaning and dehumanizing changes that Industry caused to whole societies when it melted us down to fuel the labor pool.

The great irony of Cluetrain is that today—

—yet things are worse. You know that, of course, but to grok how fully bleak things have become, read Shoshana Zuboff’s The Age of Surveillance Capitalism and/or Brett Frischmann and Evan Selinger’s Re-Engineering Humanity.

Yet I remain optimistic. Because Cluetrain was early by (it turns out) at least two decades. And mainstream media are starting to get the clues. I know that because last week I heard from The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, AP and an HBO show. I normally hear from none of those (or maybe one, a time or two per year).

Something is in the water. It’s us, and the water is still the Internet.

Bonus link.

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