2002-02-12: The Cluetrain Manifesto

The Cluetrain Manifesto

The end of business as usual (2000)

by Rick Levine (1957?-), Christopher Locke (1947-), Doc Searles (1947-), David Weinberger (1950-)

This book is about getting a clue (getting on the cluetrain). It is intended to convince business-folk that they should embrace the cultural changes sweeping over their workers and customers, in order to get the most (work and money) out of them.

The book opens with 95 theses. A few:

  1. Markets are conversations.
  2. Markets consist of human beings, not demographic sectors.
  3. Conversations among humans sound human. They are conducted in a human voice.

The book is repetitious, nearly to the point of being tedious. But it is constructed around the personal voices, and common viewpoints, of its authors (one or two per chapter).

Chapter 2, The Longing, (David Weinberg) starts out:

We know telephones are for talking with people, televisions are for watching programs, and highways are for driving. So what’s the Web for?

We don’t know. Yet we put it on magazine covers, found businesses stoking it, spend billions on an infrastructure for it. We want it to be important with a desperation that can frighten us when we look at it coldly.

Who is this we? It’s not just the webheads and full-time aficionados. It’s the management teams who don’t understand it but sense an opportunity. It’s the uncles and aunts who pepper you with questions about all this Web stuff. It’s the seven-year-old who takes it for granted that when she speaks the entire world can choose to hear her. Our culture’s pulse is pounding with the Web.

This fervid desire for the Web bespeaks a longing so intense that it can only be understood as spiritual. A longing indicates that something is missing in our lives. What is missing is the sound of the human voice.

The spiritual lure of the Web is the promise of the return of voice.

Weinberg has a sidebar quoting the commencement speech of John Jay Chapman to the Hobart College class of 1900:

When I was asked to make this address I wondered what I had to say to you boys who are graduating. And I think I have one thing to say. If you wish to be useful, never take a course that will silence you. Refuse to learn anything that implies collusion, whether it be a clerkship or a curacy, a legal fee or a post in a university. Retain the power of speech no matter what other power you may lose. If you can take this course, and in so far as you take it, you will bless this country. In so far as you depart from this course you become dampers, mutes, and hooded executioners.

As a practical matter a mere failure to speak out upon occasions where no opinion is asked or expected of you, and when the utterance of an uncalled-for suspicion is odious, will often hold you to a concurrence in palpable iniquity. Try to raise a voice that will be heard from here to Albany and watch what comes forward to shut off the sound. It is not a German sergeant, nor a Russian officer of the precinct. It is a note from a friend of your father’s offering you a place in his office. This is your warning from the secret police. Why, if any of you young gentlemen have a mind to make himself heard a mile off, you must make a bonfire of your reputations and a close enemy of most men who wish you well.

I have seen ten years of young men who rush out into the world with their messages, and when they find how deaf the world is, they think they must save their strength and wait. They believe that after a while they will be able to get up on some little eminence from which they can make themselves heard. “In a few years,” reasons one of them, “I shall have gained a standing, and then I will use my powers for good.” Next year comes and with it a strange discovery. The man has lost his horizon of thought. His ambition has evaporated; he has nothing to say. I give you this one rule of conduct. Do what you will, but speak out always. Be shunned, be hated, be ridiculed, be scared, be in doubt, but don’t be gagged. The time of trial is always. Now is the appointed time.

I found this interesting, and wonder who Chapman is. Also, I wonder how many of the graduates heeded his words.

Rick Levine (chapter 3, Talk Is Cheap) extols the virtues of craft, using pottery as his anchor. A lot of the book criticizes the industrial revolution for destroying both craftsmanship and the conversational markets in which craftsmen’s wares were discussed and sold to discerning customers. He says: “I consider myself an artist and a craftsman, and bring a craftsman’s attitudes to my work and life. One perspective that seems to surface with some regularity is a deeply instilled obligation to do new work, create stuff people have never seen before.  … In execution, it’s a standard requiring constant exploration and reinvention, but also a studied ignorance of what’s considered right and proper. There’s a bit of irrationality in believing that if I follow my own intuition and, at some level, don’t pay attention to what other people think, I’ll create unique works that will surprise and delight.” He goes on to say that most creative people and knowledge workers recognize this attitude.

Some people apply a craftsmanlike care to their work, and their voices are heard, remarked upon, and recognized as uniquely theirs.

The Web is no different. Every Web page has a person behind it. Sometimes their individual decisions are eroded and digested by being passed through a corporate colon of editors, gatekeepers and other factota, but there are clear signposts to individual care and concern on much of today’s Web. … The percentage of “raw” content published, direct from a creator’s fingers to our eyes, is much higher than in traditional media. … Inevitably, our heightened awareness of distinct, individual voices engenders the urge to talk back, to engage, to converse.

He gives the Cluetrain elevator pitch: “People talk to each other. In open, straightforward conversations. Inside and outside organizations. The inside and outside conversations are connecting. We have no choice but to participate in them.” Later he gives a definition of knowledge worker: A knowledge worker is someone whose job entails having really interesting conversations at work.

Doc Searles (Chapter 4, Markets Are Conversations) recounts how markets and marketing evolved as a result of the industrial revolution, developing a body of technique (a craft) to generate a lowest-common-denominator message that could be delivered to lowest-common-denominator consumers that would induce them to consume lowest-common-denominator products made by lowest-common-denominator workers on factory production lines. I suppose it’s necessary, but boring, background. It also is intended to make the reader angry (unless he’s the manager of a factory full of these people). However, his thesis is that there is no market for marketing: nobody wants these messages. When people have alternatives to broadcast advertising, they will route around advertising, participating in human conversations. Maybe. He has a quote from Garrison Keillor: “English is the perfect language for preachers because it allows you talk until you think of what to say.” He also makes the point that the human voice is funny. The ability to laugh, particularly at oneself, is a sure tip-off of a genuine human’s voice.

Weinberg (Chapter 5, The Hyperlinked Organization) applies the metaphor of the Web to business organizations, urging the recognition that the hierarchical org chart is obsolete, and is widely known to be a weapon used by management to control conversations. His catch-phrase is “Hyperlinks Subvert Hierarchy”. In a sidebar he says this about hierarchical structures:

Ever since Aristotle, we understand what something is by seeing what category it’s in and how it differs from other things in that category. For examples, humans are animals, but we are the rational ones. This knowledge hierarchy constrains things to a single category. In a hyperlinked world, however, things can be understood by reference (via metaphor) to other things – and can be like more that one thing at a time.

If you change the way we understand things, you’ve changed something very significant indeed.

This sounds appealing, but is short on particulars. Also, I suspect the word metaphor is used to avoid having to investigate the hard implications of what he is trying to get us to believe. Still, my approach to memetics is based on a balance between relating low-level details to higher categories, and understanding higher categories by the examples of their members. He might be on to something.

He goes on about conversations: “Conversations are where ideas happen and partnerships are formed. Sometimes they create commitments, but more often they’re pulling people through fields of common interest with no known destination. The structure of conversations is always hyperlinked and never hierarchical.” Apparently quoting Fernando Flores:

To have a conversation, you have to be comfortable being human – acknowledging you don’t have all the answers, being eager to learn from someone else and to build new ideas together.

You can only have a conversation if you’re not afraid to be wrong. Otherwise, you’re not conversing, you’re just declaiming, speechifying, or reading what’s on the PowerPoints. To converse, you have to be willing to be wrong in front of another person.

Weinberg again: “Decisions are also centralized to enable accountability: praise for success, condemnation for failure. But every team member recognizes – and often resents – this fiction.” He mentions an incident of a manager receiving recognition for his team’s work. “Being appreciated is not a commutative [I think he meant transitive] property – it requires eye contact, not the ritualistic passing of pens.”

In a section on the importance of stories, he has a sidebar, Seven Ways to Tell Stories:

Ban the opening joke. Begin your next PowerPoint presentation by saying, “Let me tell you a story …” and then recount what made the market the way it is, what got your company to come up with such an incredible product, and what obstacles particular customers faced and overcame by using your product.

Make sure the forms you use to “collect knowledge” have big empty boxes in them so the story can be told.

Every meeting with a potential partner, every exciting sales meeting, every important encounter with customers can best be told as a story. Do so.

Turn your next white paper into a narrative.

Collect the stories of your business and publish them on an intranet site.

Reward the tellers of good stories. They’re the people everyone’s listening to anyway.

Rewrite your mission statement as a corporate story. In fact, wouldn’t a narrative version of an annual report help the company more than the usual hearty prose and canned snaps of happy employees?

Shortly after, he says:

We often use the phrase “knowledge is power” to make it seem that hierarchically granted power is justifiable. In most hierarchies, however, knowledge isn’t power, it’s a weapon. Being right advances you and being wrong is a defeat. That sucks.

You can see the politics of “being right” throughout most organizations. People win arguments – and thus secure their position in the hierarchy – through the cutting remark, through the megatonnage of evidence, through agreeing with industry consultants, and through the smug refusal to ever admit being wrong.

But wrongness has a lot going for it beyond the fact that some things can only be learned through trial and error. For example:

Some people are great at generating ideas but terrible at thinking through their impact. You want them to have as many bad ideas as possible because they will thereby randomly generate more good ideas. (I tell my clients that I try to maintain a 9:1 ration of bad ideas to good. And, no, I can’t tell which are which. If only.)

Errors are how assumptions become visible. And there is nothing more valuable than a newly discovered assumption, because only then can you see what’s holding you back and what could propel you forward.

There’s too much to know, so all important decisions are, to some extent, random. By being free to make errors, you can try more paths until you stumble on one that takes somewhere interesting (albeit probably not where you at first thought – mistakenly – you should be heading).

Mistakes give us something to talk about.

Being wrong is a lot funnier than being right. The right type of laughter – laughter at what the mistake reveals about our situation rather than laughter aimed at a person who dares to be human – is enormously liberating. In fact laughter is the sound that knowledge makes when it’s born.

Chapter 7, EZ Answers, by Christopher Locke and David Weinberg, recapitulates the history that got us (customers and workers) an business where we are today. In early days, markets were conversations and craft and voice were “joined at the hip”; trade routes were short. Then it turned out the world was round; trade routes got long. Producers were further from markets, so middlemen bought from producers and sold to consumers. The Industrial Revolution replaced human grunt work with new power sources; a Good Thing ™ for producers. Also repeatable processes and interchangeable parts were an Even Better Thing, leading to economies of scale (bigger profits as long as producers were competing with craft workers). In the 20th century, interchangeable workers  on assembly lines became part of the machine. Craft work was killed off, and workers learned to quietly obey if they valued their jobs. Economies of scale in production lead to economies of scale in management. Bureaucratic hierarchies defined the division of labor to make the enterprise work, including the division of bureaucratic labor. Organization charts defined the hierarchy, and the communication patterns allowed for the conveyance of power (command and control) from the boss through the levels to the workers. Mass production required mass marketing, which required mass media. The broadcast model (through newspapers, junk mail, radio, and television) created channels through which advertising could be metered, and in which results could be measured and paid for. Marketing required control of the message, and corporate speech constrained by the org chart produced “messages” aimed at interchangeable consumers. The result was narrowly defined mass markets, such as the homogenized American auto market of the ’60s and ’70s.

Globalization of business resulted in greater consumer choice, and the American auto market suffered in competition with the Japanese and European competition. The shock was felt in the internal processes of the businesses, but consumers began to appreciate greater choice. In business, the catch-phrases were “The Knowledge Deficit” and “Total Quality Management”, as managers discovered that most of the knowledge was closely held by those who were not allowed to speak from the bottom of the org chart. The authors say, “What Quality really meant was: ‘We changed our minds. Please don’t check your brain at the door.'” Suddenly workers were less interchangeable, and so were consumers. Still marketing persisted with the same old approach. “Then along came the Internet and all hell broke loose.”

The broadcast model had to compete with the conversations people were having online, and the stilted controlled message had to compete with the human voices of countless conversations, on the Internet, within intranets, and across firewall boundaries pierced by email, online chat, newsgroups, and websites.

Still many corporations try to maintain the Berlin Walls of their monolithic image of themselves. They try to keep the customer from learning what goes on inside, try to control the corporate speech within the walls, try to control the message transmitted from inside to outside, and try to ignore the shouts from outside the walls.

Via intranets, workers are already speaking among themselves. Via the Internet, markets are already speaking among themselves. The convergence of these two conversations is not only necessary, but inevitable. Why? Because markets, unencumbered by corporate bureaucracy and the need to ask permission at every turn, are learning faster than organizations. Markets are therefore coming into a new ascendancy, a fancy way of saying “We rule, dude!” And increasingly we value only two qualities:

The engagement and passion-for-quality of craft.

Conversations among recognizably human voices.

The simple, if painful, prognosis: organizations must encourage and engage in genuine conversations with workers and markets – or go belly up.

Then, after talking about dumb questions asked by the clueless, they have an interesting “ontological” aside that I like:

This leads to a funny conclusion. Ironic, actually. We ask questions about the future of the Web because we think there’s a present direction that can be traced into the future. But in fact, the questions we ask aren’t going to predict the future. They will create the future.

Not to get all heavy and ontological, but since questions area a type of conversation, it looks a bit like conversations give the world its shape, doesn’t it? Questions do the spade work. They prepare the ground for answers. Be careful what you ask or you just might become it.

After dismissing the usual dumb present-oriented from the wallets of businessmen questions (e.g., Will the Web become a broadcast medium? Will it become TV?), they raise these:

What the heart wants to know is, When the buttons at our fingers let us talk with the polyglot world’s artists, how will we cope? What will we share as a culture and community? What will we talk about together? What will we laugh about? What type of laughter – mocking, ironic, cynical, sinister, belly-shaking guffaws – are we going to hear? Will we find we all share a common sense of humor, or will we learn to laugh in a new language? When will we record the first case of Web inebriation, a transglobal xenophilia induced by pure, uncut connectedness?

Here’s a question beloved of industry analysts and others who think the point of conversation is to appear smart: How quickly will commerce move to the Web? Let’s trot out the charts and studies, confident that at least one of them is going to turn out right.

But is this question really so important, or does it just address a detail about timing? Is your business going to be transformed if it turns out we’re not going to hit the gazillion mark until 2004 instead of 2003?

But there is a heartfelt question lurking here. It has to do with the things of the world that quench our thirsts and raise our souls. It has to do with our fear of replacing the shops – and the neighborhoods they enable – with a paper-souled efficiency that lets us search out and consume commodity products at disquietingly low prices. We’re afraid that the last shred of human skin left on the bones of commerce is about to come off in our hands. We want to know how we’ll reconnect to the other people in the market: buyers and sellers, people we know or whose faces are the landscape of our life in the agora. And we have this fear precisely because the e-commerce question has been asked wrongly so often, as if once commerce becomes virtual it will become cruelly automatic. We need to ask the heartfelt question about how we’re going to talk about the things we care about, or e-commerce will indeed become nothing but the soundless scrape of coins over the wire.

After an excursion into the “problem” of porn on the Web, and the distinction between public and private life, they come back to some central questions:

More questions meant to distract us: How will we know what’s junk on the Web and what’s worth believing? How will we avoid being fooled by anyone with a plausible story and a Web address? What will be the new criteria, the new marks of authenticity? These questions express a longing for someone to take charge of our knowledge. We want experts and authorities, just as we crave censors more than we crave sex and prefer certainty to freedom.

But our hearts have a different set of questions: when we can’t rely on a central authority – the government, the newspapers, the experts in the witness box – for our information, what new ways of believing will we find? How will we be smart in a world where it’s easier to look something up than to know it? How will we learn to listen to ideas in context, to information inextricably tied to the voice that’s uttering it? How can we reverse our habit of understanding matters by jumping to further levels of abstraction and instead learn to dig into the concrete, the personal, and the unique, told as stories worthy of our time?

Chapter 7, Post-Apocalypso, is Christopher Locke’s chance to sum up. He starts with a quote from Richard Nixon’s first inaugural address, 1969: “We will strive to listen in new ways – to the voices of quiet anguish, to voices that speak without words, the voices of the heart, to the injured voices, and the anxious voices, and the voices that have despaired of being heard.” He then goes on:

Irony is perhaps the most common mode of Internet communications. The Net didn’t create the mentality, but it did come along just in time to give it new expression. Nixon speaking about unheard voices of the heart from the height of the 1960s is a prime example of why most people have despaired of ever being heard at all. And of why they’ve stopped listening for answers from above – from Big Government, Big Business, Big Education, Big Media, Big Religio0n. With few exceptions, the interlocking agendas of these monolithic powers have become utterly divorced from the constituencies they were originally conceived to serve, their interests as remote from our daily lives as the court of King George was to the American colonies in1776. And you know what happened then.

So are we calling for a revolution? What would be the point? The only revolution that matters is already well underway. And by the way, since it’s not being covered by CNN and Fox, we’re winning.

You say you didn’t notice anything out of the ordinary? Nor were you supposed to. Invisibility and ignorance are powerful weapons.

Ignorance is not a value you often hear extolled. Let’s make up for lost time. Here’s how it works; it’s pretty simple. When you ignore people long enough, they begin to feel invisible. Because your important concerns do not concern them, they begin to figure it’s a two-way street. They begin to ignore you back. Pretty soon they’re thinking Al Gore is some hockey player from Winnipeg, and Warren Buffet …  isn’t he the guy who does late-nite infomercials for cut-rate country western CDs? Three easy payments and it’s yours? Yeah, but who really cares.

Ignorance is power. A maxim often heard online is that the Internet routes around obstacles, meaning it ignores them. In its early phase, the Net ignored business; Internet audiences simply weren’t interested. And the feeling was mutual. Business ignored the net for a long time, not seeing it as what it thought a media market should look like, which is to say television. This mutual ignorance served as the incubator for a global revolution that today threatens the foundations of business-as-usual.

Before any Old Order of Things can be given the final heave-ho coup de grace, it’s necessary to create a parallel infrastructure controlled by people acting in cooperation for their own benefit and mutual support. One thing any such effort requires is an extraordinarily efficient means of communication. We didn’t used to have one. Telephones just didn’t cut it.

Then, irony of ironies, along comes the Internet. It was as if we’d ordered it from Amazon: “Hello, U.S. federal Government? Yes, we’d like one totally open, high-speed data backbone. Uh-huh, and charge that to the Department of Defense, why don’t you? What’s that? What do we want it for? Oh, just chatting about stuff. You know, this and that …”

Invisibility is freedom. At first it feels awful that no one can see you, that nobody’s paying attention. Darn! But you get used to it. We’ve had two hundred years to get used to it. Then one day you find yourself on a network, networking, and it dawns on you that it’s like walking through walls. Wow! Like some comic-book-mystic ninja warrior! That’s pretty cool. You can get away with saying things you could never say if anyone took you seriously. Dilbert is just a comic strip. Hah-hah. Beavis and Butthead is just a cartoon. Heh-heh. And if anyone comes sniffing around and wonders if this Internet stuff could be maybe dangerous, culturally subversive, it’s oh, hey, never mind us. We’re just goofing off over here on the Web. No threat. Carry on. As you were.

But we aren’t goofing off. We’re organizing: building and extending the Net itself, crafting tools and communities, new ways of speaking, new ways of working, new ways of having fun. And all this is happening, has happened so far, without rules and laws, without managers and managed. It’s self-organizing. People by the millions are discovering how to negotiate, cooperate, collaborate, – to create, to explore, to enjoy themselves.

But what’s the point, asks business? Business always wants there to be a point, a goal, an objective, a plan. Otherwise, how would we manage?

There never was any grand plan on the Internet, and there isn’t one today. The Net is just the Net. But it has provided an extraordinary means of communication to people so long ignore, so long invisible, that they’re only now figuring out what to do with it. Funny thing: lawless, planless, management-free, they’re figuring out what to do with the Internet much faster than government agencies, academic institutions,, media conglomerates, and Fortune-class corporations.

So what is the internet good for? Besides chatting, that is? Well, there’s the small matter of coordinating distribution. Remember those ancient markets from way back in the first chapter where we talked about trade routes and the cities that grew up where they intersected? Where caravans arrived with exotic merchandise and tried to sell their wares.

“Figs here! Delicious figs!”

“Give me one. Figs want to be free.”

“No way.”

“I won’t buy from you if I can’t have a taste. From where I’m standing your figs smell like your camel pissed on them.”

“My camel is very well behaved. He never urinates.”

But enough about early advertising. One thing the Net is good for is organizing markets. Especially if you’re invisible and powerless, ignorant of how things are supposed to work, ignorant of business-as-usual. Especially if you’re intent on end-running the empire.

Who has the stuff we like? Who makes the stuff we need? Interest, curiosity, craft, voice, and voice combine to create powerful self-organizing marketplaces on the Web: “Figs here! Delicious figs!” or it might be a faster chip, an elegant bit of code, a new idea, a joke, a line of poetry, a job. Stuff, as the digital world has taught us, isn’t always stuff. And coordinating how it gets distributed is more like a cocktail party than a strategy session. Stuff gets around the way word gets around. Along the same routes. Around the same obstacles. Though motivated by altogether principles than those driving business, this is not as chaotic as it may sound, nor as inefficient. It’s happening right now, every day. It works. “Follow the money” may still apply, but to find the money in the first place, follow the conversation.

After disclaiming any interest in business after all, Locke closes with:

However, we do have a vision of what life could be like if we ever make it through the current transition. It’s hard for some to imagine the Era of Total Cluelessness coming to a close. But try. Try hard. Because only imagination can finally bring the curtain down.

Imagine a world where everyone is constantly learning, a world where what you wondered was more interesting than what you knew, and curiosity counted for more than certain knowledge. Imagine a world where what you gave away was more valuable than what you held back, where joy was not a dirty word, where play was not forbidden after your eleventh birthday. Imagine a world in which the business of business was to imagine worlds people might actually want to live in someday. Imagine a world created by the people, for the people not perishing from the earth forever.

Yeah. Imagine that.


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