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Cluetrain at Ten – a conversation at Berkman

Ten years ago, when the internet was young and innocent, four provocateurs posted their manifesto, The Cluetrain Manifesto. It was snarky, it was smart, it sold well, and it influenced a lot of thinking.

It’s ten years old now, and it’s worth asking how it aged. So Jonathan Zittrain is questioning David Weinberger and Doc Searls about their baby, in front of a star-studded group at Harvard Law School. This should be fun.

(Star-studded? Let me put it this way – Dan Bricklin, the creator of Visicalc, the world’s first spreadsheet, spends the talk running around with a microphone, ensuring that the questions from the audience get captured on the webcast. It’s that kind of gathering…)

Here’s my attempt to capture the conversation in realtime, paraphrasing liberally.

JZ – Against what were you raging?

DS – Can we get that movie flashback music? Actually, we didn’t get together in the same place – I was in California, David was in Boston and Chris Locke was in Boulder. But we were on the phone and emailing a lot about ways in which people were misunderstanding the internet. We thought it was this miraculous, utopian new thing, and they were treating it as the information highway, a place where you invested and made a lot of money.

DW – It was new company versus old company. We were having this conversation and rallying against the man. The media coverage was very positive, but they were focusing on the financial utopia.

We thought we were articulating common sense, what everyone who was on the web and loved it already knew.

JZ – We know you had 95 theses. What’s the bumper sticker version?

DS – We had 95 theses because it worked for Luther. We called it a manifesto because it worked for Marx. And we called it “cluetrain” because it’s an old silicon valley joke – the clue train stops there four times a day, but it never takes delivery

But here’s a bumper sticker: Talk is cheap and silence is fatal.

DW – Markets is conversations is the phrase that really stuck and became the emblem of the book. But we all viewed it as being about more than marketing.

JZ – That seems like a fairly extreme anti-coporate screed, when people hand-traded their wares, traded them in a noisy agora and went home and didn’t listen to the radio…

DW – That’s pretty much right, but I’d like to avoid the implication that the internet is only about selling flower pots and bongs. But it’s not just a throwback – we’re digital, highly networked, connected in new and interesting ways.

JZ – So, have we finally gotten the clue?

DS – The main thing for me was the net was not well understood. If it would be, you wouldn’t have written your book. One of the major messages was that “we” weren’t seats or eyeballs. Eventually, I had to think about who “we” were – I meant ordinary folks, people who loved and used the net, not necessarily customers who would support IPO valuations. The stock market crashed helped correct some of this mystique. And now we’re dealing with a new “us” – a world where the net is everywhere, on phones, accessible all over the world.

JZ – How does this fit into your views on authenticity?

DW – This is one of the things that I think is wrong with the book. I still think the web is incredibly disruptive, as disruptive as the printing press. But I think the anger of the book is now misplaced – angry, middle-aged men raging against broadcast, a truly repressive regime. But now stepping into the internet isn’t liberation – it’s just what it is. And the angry, smug tone of Cluetrain may not be out of date.

The problem with authenticity: Chris used to say that corporations can’t be authentic because they can’t fuck. They don’t have bodies, they don’t experience the reality that we do. Authenticity is dangerous, it can make you feel good about something without engaging with the substance of it. It’s a useful term, but there’s not much metaphysics behind it – it makes me nervous to hear it raised, and I now think it’s a grab bag of stuff that doesn’t resolve to much.

DS – I don’t agree. I think what we’re experimenting with with Twitter, with blogs is embracing this voice, this authenticity.

DW – So what’s Proctor and Gamble’s authentic voice?

DS – Fort Business is an absurd conceit of an old regime that can’t survive in the new era.

DW – The idea that building a business is like building a fort, keeping information away from customers, is absurd now – we’re all on the net and all informed.

Thesis seventy-something – Advertising doesn’t work anymore. It’s totally wrong.

DS – Companies have to live in a world where there’s zero distance from everyone. The cost of communicating is very low, and that makes all the difference. There’s a high cost to keeping information from customers, or even competitors. Some things need to be secret – trade secrets…

JZ – Public companies can’t share their thoughts in a live stream…

DW – Actually, someone at Ebay does. And we agree that astroturfers should rot in hell. But the problem with advertising is that the advertising that blares at you and appeals to the lizard part of your brain – it totally works. I’ve got ad jingles in my brain since the 1970s and I’d pay for a surgical procedure to have them removed. (David sings the Eastern Airlines jingle.)

We do have the ability to undo some of the damage the mindless, lizard-brain stuff used to do. We were consider buying a Mini – in the past, we would have asked the dealer. Now you’re going to go online and find out whether it does or doesn’t work.

JZ – And you’re happy if that’s from CarTalk or Trip Advisor, or Amazon.

I want to see Twitter as a case study because it’s the flavor of the month. Is Twitter exactly what Weinberger talked about when he said, “On the Internet, everyone will be famous for fifteen people”? Or is it the modality that can be subverted by Twitter brand managers.

DS – It’s a silo, there’s one company sitting in the middle of it. Sure, they’ve got no business model, but I’m not sure that getting continuing investment isn’t a business model.

Every company has two models – you sell to customers, and you sell to your investors. The second got out of control in the dot.com years. Evan Williams is a master of this – he sold Blogger to Google, and now Twitter’s working on something similar. But it does perform a service.

JZ – Vendor relationship management. Turning CRM – customer relationship management – on its head. You’re saying, no, let the consumers do it to the vendors…

DS – We call them customers, not consumers. Consumers are gullets with eyeballs that crap cash (he’s quoting someone, don’t know who). VRM is the reciprocal of CRM. CRM is what sends you junk mail, sets up the callcenters you hate. We’re turning that around, being able to change your address once for everyone you deal with, giving customers control over their relationship with sellers in the marketplace. The Public Radio tuner – VRM will be showing up in that.

JZ – So let’s try some of this wisdom in politics. Have we seen some of this wisdom work out in the political space?

DW – Yes. (pauses) Do you want more?

One of the things I’m proudest of with the book, Joe Trippi read the book and used some of the insights to manage Howard Dean’s campaign. We always thought Cluetrain was about the effect of the web with business as one example. Politics is harder to change than business – business will change if they see a profit, while government and politics has deeper, harder patterns to alter.

The idea of sending messages to the troops is a broadcast model, it’s what we’re trying to overturn. You can’t just invert it – Howard Dean can’t read 600,000 emails. So you scale at the base of the period, building cohorts around any sets of interest. You could form groups like Pilots for Dean, Educators for Dean… even Howards for Dean. Conversations as a way of undoing pyramidal structures is a lasting legacy in contemporary politics.

JZ – How do we respond to the fact that Obama’s conversation spaces seem to be hosting nothing but conversations about the legalization of marijuana?

DW – These spaces are being gamed. Eszter Hargittai and (yours truly) are quite persuasive on the idea that the net isn’t truly ubiquitous and evenly distributed – that’s influencing these conversations as well.

DS – During the Dean campaign, lots of campaign tools were still on spreadsheets and other proprietary tools. In the Dean campaign, there was some experimentation with Drupal and open tools. But by the time the Obama campaign came around, all voter rolls were in open, easy to use tools. It had a lot to do with a geek diaspora from the Dean campaign.

JZ – Let’s let our medium and message overlap. JZ moves to the audience.

Daniel Derne – Do you feel that the Cluetrain gave dangerous ammunition to the “they” so that they could do damage to us? In our 2.0, 3.0 world, are we approaching a similar point of co-option? For all the companies who want to be my friend or buddy, if I pay attention to them, I end up ignoring something else. At this point, I think I’d rather have Jon Stewart tell me not to believe.

DS – There were some vexatious opponents of Cluetrain who believe we wrote a marketing book. I don’t think that’s true. The BS detection we have is better than ever, and if marketers send messages at us, claiming they’re Cluetrain messages, it just means they didn’t understand it.

DW – One way of reading the web is thinking of it as continuous reinvention of how we sort through information, to find what we need and want to see. We’ve got too many blogs, so Dave Winer comes up with RSS. We’ve got too many tweets, so someone will design another filter. In quite a Cluetrainy way, lots of these creations use social filtering.

JZ – For every digg, is there a subvertandprofit.com? There’s always a social media participant who’s willing to take a buck per digg.

DW – That is a rot in hell zone. We’re always going to have bad actors who use the net to their slimy advantage. Otherwise, we need strict authentication, and we turn off generativity. I hope we’re always in a place where we can game this stuff.

DS – I think it’s wonderful that there’s so many ways to not have a life.

Shava Nerad – Does the Internet, and tools like MoveOn, make you think you’re participating even if you’re not?

DW – Trippi always wanted a shoeleather and mousepad campaign, where the online involvement led you to real-world involvement. This is something the Obama campaign finally worked out.

Questioner – Deval Patrick used these tools pretty well, but he’s not governing using them. Obama isn’t mobilizing his millions of supporters to push for his agenda. It’s a function of power – you get locked into your particular bubble.

DS – It’s easy for a campaign to work out the problems the Obama campaign worked out, especially stealing from the Dean campaign. Solving governance is much, much harder – there’s entrenched bureaucracy, resistance from the whole Beltway system.

JZ – Is the toolkit we want as a challenger and an insurgent a different one we want once we’ve got a tickertape parade.

Britt Blazer – Six years ago, I was at David’s house when we agreed that the President who needed the net to get elected was the President we wanted. So I joined the Dean campaign.

Campaigns don’t have a web services platform – they’ve got piles of young people with energy you couldn’t pay for. At 11pm, the Saturday before Christmas, piles of kids trying to resolve 17 disparate databases.

JZ – Is this a heartwarming story, or a modern day sweatshop?

Britt – Both. There’s lots of money and romance around a presidential campaign… and you’ll notice that no one has really replicated this energy. Until someone can build a soup to nuts platform – a GRM project – this is going to be a hugely labor-intensive project.

JZ – Phil Jacob from Stylefeeder is here – it’s more an insurgent than a dominant player. How does this question apply to insurgent companies?

Phil Jacobs – Reads from Louis Vuitton’s CEO in the Financial Times. He suggests that we need a way to put morality online. What on earth is it going to take for guys like this to get it, 15 years after the birth of the commercial web?

DW – Failure.

Jacobs – Nope. They’ve got huge capital reserves, they’ve survived through SARS, 9/11…

DW – What can I say? There’s a complete lack of vision and understanding. There are probably hundreds of his people in his organization begging him to stop saying these things.

Questioner – Can you give examples of companies that actually get it? Have learned from Cluetrain?

DW – All companies have some sense of this – the fact that you have uncensored product reviews from customers on sites is a reflection of the Cluetrain ideas. IBM defined the conservative business approach, command and control – it was the icon of that era. And now they’re doing IBM “jams” – conversations between equals over the web. This is a company that’s stopped developing their own webserver, and adopted Apache. It’s pretty cool.

DS – A couple of years ago, the guy in charge of kernel hackers at IBM told me he realized he couldn’t tell the hackers what to do. It was cluefull of them to realize that they were becoming a Linux company whether they liked it or not. Microsoft set up usenet newsgroups for hundreds of their products and monitor what’s said there – that’s clueful. Southwest Airlines – they like their employees, don’t stand on formality. The net is changing not just the culture of organizations – it’s changing how they literally work.

DW – This is not a company, it’s an industry – the news media. Very mixed environment – it ranges from the ridiculous to the pretty impressive. I’m not convinced that CNN paying attention to random tweeting is better than man on the street interviews. But the fact that the New York Times has a beta page where you can aggregate articles not just from the Times but other papers, is pretty cool.

JZ – In 2004, you were ranting about the Times’s referentiality. It’s fixed that and now it’s thriving… :-)

Zittrain turns to Dan Gillmor and quotes from a review, as a book that would change the way we think about the world.

Gillmor – The fact that you’re celebrating the NYTimes doing something way too late, and the fact that they’re ahead of almost all papers shows that newspapers still don’t get it and are pretty determined not to.

Haley Suitt – Let’s ask not what Obama can do for us – let’s ask what we can do for Obama. The book changed the way many people thought about business, gave many of us energy to try new businesses. I’d love to hear what you guys think about what we should do now to get this deadbeat economy going. Are you going to do another book to get us going?

DW – A geeky history of information? And a book on how businesses are taking on the properties of networks.

JZ – Clearly part of your ethos is about entering into a conversation. How do businesses – or authors – handle the negative stuff? Would you ever want to foreground it on a website?

DS – I like to engage critics who’ve got something substantive to say.

DW – The book I wrote after this got one review: “Like it was written by a room full of monkeys, but not as good.” I added it to the site in the midst of the other reviews.

SJ Klein – You’ve got different groups of people with different motivations, Marketers want to sell – it’s in their DNA – I think that’s a good thing to see these behaviors in these networks. People used to go online to sign petitions… eventually they figure out how to make flashmobs. It’s exciting when people figure out you can make phonecalls on their PCs.

Assume that what you said about ubiquity is wrong. And assume that there’s millions of people with lots of free time, and you’ve got access to them via the internet. There’s hundreds of new pyramids – how do you get filters for their pyramid bases?

DW – Obviously, this is the problem of abundance. It’s one of those words you need to understand to understand the net. The old techniques don’t scale – they were intended to find the best person to do the job, the single answer. In a time of genuine abundance, good enough is good enough. There isn’t a single canon – canons don’t scale.

JZ – I’m going to try to bring this in to land. Do either of you have questions you want to throw out there?

DS – There are lots more phones than computers. When do phone systems become data systems? When do cable systems become data systems? Infrastructure is a big deal – how do we get close to as many people as possible?

JZ – Are you convinced that bringing the net to everyone will really be a delicious treat? Or will it be cable television?

DS – I’m a utopian on that front. It’s not that I think the net is a panacea – I think human beings are incredibly resourceful and creative.

DW – For the past eight years, I’ve been a clinically depressed utopian. I’m not at all convinced that we’re free of locked-down, non-generative devices… like the iPhone. Perhaps they’re going to decide that the ap store is a good idea and we end up with locked down computers. I remain a utopian who’s still scared shitless.

Questioner – Could you speak about China? The collective memory of Tienanman has been erased, despite all the tech you guys think make this connection inevitable?

DW – Ten years ago, I was more of a John Perry Barlow, internet routes around obstacles person. It looks like, culturally, you can lock down the Internet. So it’s hard for me to retain my belief that the internet will always route around and hard to believe that our internet – ours, not the US’s – will remain free.

Qustioner – From a consumer perspective, I wonder if there will be a convergence between cluefull companies and customers skeptical of locked-down technologies? Is there some hope for utopia in the kids behind us.

DW – I remain utopian and more hopeful than ever. Those hopes are based in the new administration and the new generation. But Doc and I have to die.

DS – Then you’ll be free.

JZ – No! You can stick around and be elder statesmen.

DS – I’m more optimistic. In the long run, locked down will fail. Right now, it still pays off enough. As individuals get more power, it will change. As customers give their own terms of engagement, perhaps they won’t sign the lousy, one-sided privacy agreement. The Apple Ap store is slick, but it can’t scale – they keep rejecting programs on specious grounds. Why spinchter everything? It’s discouraging that the Jabber protocol hasn’t been widely adopted, allowing everyone to have different IM systems. Why should Yahoo have their own IM system? In the long run, it’s self-defeating?

JZ – What will it mean to check in ten years from now? Will we have the Minority Report holodecks? That’s my prediction, and you can take it to the offshore Icelandic bank.

9 thoughts on “Cluetrain at Ten – a conversation at Berkman”

  1. Thanks so much for this, Ethan. Really wish I could be there- reading cluetrain made me quit one job; I’m sure next time I read it it’ll make me quit another one ;)

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  3. Great run down.. looking for, but have not found archive video in case someone has a link.

    And this to show you have far we have not progressed. Saw an article in AdAge magazine a few months back titled “Lever’s CMO Throws Down the Social-Media Gauntlet” where Simon Clift, CMO Unilever proclaims “brands are becoming conversation(s)”.

    Having earlier commented on this article reflecting Cluetrain at 10, I thought I’d add a little more UCG to things…. After attempting to post my comment they dumped me behind a paywall asking me to buy a “credit” in order to comment on their article.

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