Chasing the Cluetrain

A long, long time ago (February ’01, as a matter of fact), a member of the anthro-l listserv mentioned the then-new Cluetrain Manifesto (see the list’s archives for a look at the original context in which it came up). I glanced at the website , but didn’t have much of a response at the time. Since then, I’ve become a regular reader of Doc Searls ‘ and David Weinberger ‘s personal sites, linking to and being linked to by them. But though I’ve read through the “Manifesto” proper (95 theses, to which the book is exposition), I had never read the book itself. Then, as I was waiting for some work to be done on my car, I stepped into a remaindered-book shop, and snagged a copy for 5 bones. It turned out to be a pretty quick read, and I think I’m finally ready to answer the question posed on that listserv 2 1/2 years ago. Better late than never, I hope.

Although its authors are not, in any way I can discern, marxists, their analysis probably won’t strike anyone familiar with Marx’ work as unusual. The rise of industrialisation, and especially mass production, was accompanied (maybe accomplished) by the development of a business-consumer relationship in which businesses relied on consumers as passive endpoints in a one-way, controlled transfer of goods, services, and information. This is most aptly illustrated by the example of Ford’s Model T “in any color you want so long as it’s black”–and again by mass media’s preferred model of interaction, with viewers or listeners as passive consumers of “content”, shoved down a pipeline from corporate HQ to your living room.

Though the market has, in some crucial ways, changed–fractionalization into “niche markets”, the incorporation and exploitation of minors as consumers, etc.– this model of business-consumer relationship has continued to dominate commerce. “Content producers”, as record labels and movie studios like to call themselves nowadays, scramble to maintain this one-way flow of product by introducing “innovations”–copy protection, encryption, digital rights management–that dictate how, where, and when their products can be used. Hardware manufacturers wrap their products in anti-reverse engineering licenses, and file suits against their products’ users to prevent their products being used in “unauthorized” ways, such as hacking an X-Box to run GNU/Linux. Auto manufacturers obscure the diagnostic codes generated by the microchips on which modern engine performance depends, so that drivers are prevented from modifying their own vehicles, as well as being forced to use only the maintenance sites chosen for them by the manufacturer. Customer service is routed through layers upon layers of voice mail menus and unknowledgeable (but cheap) techs in order to get answers to questions that should be clearly explained in products’ user manuals.

And then there’s the ads. As Cluetrain’s authors point out, there’s no demand for advertising. Advertisers absolutely know this. They intentionally seek out “captive audiences”–people who literally cannot get away. If I want to see the newest hit movie, I have to show up 20 minutes to get and keep a seat. And these days, that means watching ” The 2wenty “, 20 minutes of commercials splashed onto the big screen and pumped through the Dolby sound systems. Should I decide my time might be better used, say, taking a leak, I find an ad posted conveniently at eye level above the urinal. Maybe I give up and leave. I hail a cab, only to find myself face-to-face with a video screen showing, what else, ads. Frazzled, I tell the driver to pull over, pay, and get out. I decide to buy a pack of cigarettes at the bodega on the corner, and while waiting in line, I find myself facing another digital monitor playing out ads. Screw it, I say, and walk across the street to the Best Buy to buy the album whose hit single was embedded on a CD into the lid of my soda at the movie theater. While waiting in line to check out, yet another TV murmurs seductively of all the other Best Buy products I could be buying. I could go home, but there will just be ads on my answering machine I’ll have to listen to just in case one of the messages is from somebody I actually know and my inbox will be filled with ads I’ll have to at least glance at in case one or two e-mails are actually from humans. And so on.

The ad folks know–because they are, after all, people much like me–that there’s no way I would willingly watch or listen to all those ads. That’s why they’re paid good money to find out what things I would willingly do, and make sure that wherever I go to do them, there’s an ad. Or two. Or ten. The businesses that hire the ad folks know this, too, or they wouldn’t hire the ad folks in the first place. But while I can allow myself the luxury of thinking of ad folks and their employers as humans more or less like me, they can’t afford the luxury of returning the favor. To them, I am and must remain, like you, “a consumer”, an always-open, ever-ravenous mouth at the end of a pipeline that exists only for them to fill with product for me to consume.

The immense effort businesses expend–advertising, PR, legal wrangling, political favor-buying, and so on–to maintain this relationship betrays its ultimate falsity. While corporate production has expanded since the dawn of the Industrial era to encompass almost the entirety of commercial life, customers (not consumers) have evolved ways of evading their role as mere consumers. Before industrialization wiped out the craftsperson and artisan (for everyone except the very rich), customers learned about products by talking to the person who made or grew them; with the replacement of local manufacture by distant (both geographically and psychologically) corporations, would-be customers learned to talk to their friends and family about those products–and not the companies that made them. This process has slowly accelerated and spread out, as new technologies and new social relationships enlarged the possible circle within which these conversations could take place, reaching a fever pitch with the wide availability and easy accessibility of the Internet that has become possible over the last decade. Few people rely solely on corporate sources for information about products they are interested in–not when Usenet groups, discussion forums, and opinion aggregate sites like epinions.com and amazon.com can connect them with the opinions of people like them who actually use those products. Likewise with support: a new computer user finds out pretty quickly that his/her problem can be answered far more quickly–and far more surely–by other users than by the company that made their computer or operating system; the manufacturer may not even admit that the problem exists, let alone tell you how to fix it. Some companies may not even *allow* you to fix it! And if, god forbid, you actually want to use a product in a way not officially authorized by its manufacturer, you certainly won’t find advice on its website or from tech support–but you will probably find other people who have thought of the same thing you have, and figured out how to do it. And will tell you how, too. For free.

While the corporations have been fine-tuning their one-way delivery channels and treating customers as consumers, the people who buy and use products have been having conversations with each other, sometimes about those products, but more often about the lives in which those products play a role. Companies know this, but have so far spent their resources paying “trendspotters” to eavesdrop on these conversations and report back to the corporations, where conversations are turned into marketing materials and pushed back through the product pipeline. The thing is, while companies pursue business as usual, customers are moving on, a process greatly accelerated by the advent of the Web and its infinite possibilities for conversation. Tired of waiting for the features they wanted from a commercial computer operating system, hackers–most of them strangers to each other, united only by Usenet, e-mail, and hypertext–sat down and, for the sheer pleasure of it, made GNU/Linux, an industry-grade operating system that runs a goodly portion of the Internet these days and has Microsoft and SCO (a maker of Unix, on which Linux is based) running scared, often in a blind panic. Tired of watching great musicians struggle to be heard while the latest focus-grouped pop “idol” is shoved at us through every available channel, file-traders started opening up their collections of bootleg and official recordings over the web, offering listeners a chance to hear the music that either was not available through traditional corporate channels or whose value was not yet established. While big music companies were intensifying their efforts to control how and where their music was being listened to (you don’t “buy” music anymore, you “license” it these days), independents were growing by leaps and bounds by giving music away. Likewise in publishing–as publishers slowly began to offer a handful of fake bestsellers as overpriced “e-books”, newsgroups were flooded with quality scans of the books people really wanted to read, in formats suitable to their palm-pilots or pocket pcs, for free. While publishers spent their time and money cracking down on this trade in text, Baen publishing began giving away its e-books–and saw sales of hard copies skyrocket! While company after company tried to turn the ‘Net into an extension of their one-way pipeline and failed, eBay made a profit from its first sale, by making it easier for people to find and deal directly with other people who had products they wanted, making it easier to complete your shopping list of 10 items from 10 different merchants than trying to find the online version of the brick-and-mortar outlet who could meet even half of the list. Cheaper, too.

Cluetrain boils down to three fundamental principles: conversation, voice, and craft. Humans talk to each other–that’s what we do and what we are; corporations, more often than not, just get in the way of that. Humans speak with a human voice, and are instantly recognizable; corporations, more often than not, speak with a recognizably inhuman voice, and are being increasingly ignored. Humans make things and share them; corporations employ people to make tiny parts of things, and then “distribute” them. People–customers–want to talk to other people about the things that really interest them; corporations want to talk to consumers about only those things they feel necessary to secure a sale. There’s a huge gap there. The thing is, corporations need customers if they are going to survive; customers don’t need corporations. At all.

Cluetrain is not, in essence, anything new. It seems new because it’s about the Internet, whose growing role in our day-to-day lives is new, but it is basically the same thing Edward Sapir wrote in his 1924 essay “Culture, Genuine and Spurious”. It’s opposition of a face-to-face, conversation-driven society against the alienated, disaggregated world of corporate mass production has been a standard in anthropology and sociology, rooted in Durkheim ‘s work at the turn of the 20th century and perhaps most forcefully expressed in Robert Redfield’s work of the ’30s and ’40s. What is new is the scope of possibility for such conversations opened up by the Internet. While we cannot (yet) speak “face-to-face” over the Internet with any regularity, we can and do speak honestly, openly, and in our own “voice”, sometimes with hundreds, sometimes with thousands, and occasionally with hundreds of thousands and even millions. What’s more, we do so at our own pace, not the Taylorist pace of the corporate clock, the Internet allowing us to dip in and out of conversations at our leisure as well as to “surf” other conversations that we might not even take part in.

The Cluetrain Manifesto is essentially optimistic about all the possibilities the Internet opens up, but it is important to realize that the battle is hardly won, that customers and employees are still, by and large, unempowered, and that the openness of the Internet has been maintained so far more by a lack of understanding on the part of business than by any inherent strength of the Internet itself ( World of Ends notwithstanding). As many people are beginning to understand, the Internet represents a “commons” comparable to the uncontrolled pastureland of England several centuries ago, and like those commons, our commons can conceivably, and probably fairly easily, be “enclosed” by the “owners”. But enclosure in Britain set off centuries of struggle and revolt, and with their four-quarter fiscal year planning horizon, I don’t see corporations being able to afford that sort of protracted struggle. As long as our society maintains even the marginally free market we have today (as much as that freedom has been attenuated by deregulation, monopoly capital, corporate merger, economic liberalization, tort reform and damage caps, and most of the other workings of the current corporate dominance), there is likely to always be someone willing to open up a space for human occupation. Since our commons are, unlike the British pasturelands, infinitely extensible, a small opening is all we really need to build a commons as large as our society.

And that’s what I’m really talking about here. As much as Cluetrain Manifesto is oriented to marketeers and corporate management, as much as its examples are drawn from the business world, it’s not really about the working of the market at all, but about the workings of society. This is especially clear in the success, so far, of Howard Dean’s campaign (which employs one of the Cluetrain authors) is energizing and mobilizing a significant body of people traditionally considered outside the political mainstream. I’m not talking about radicals, here, I’m talking about the ordinary people whose place in political life has heretofore been seen by the major parties as “voters”, in the same way that corporations view them as “consumers”. While the more traditional campaigns deploy their fluffers to stroke corporate contributors for big wads of campaign cash (with strings attached, of course), Dean’s campaign has raised more money, faster, from tiny donations given by readers of his campaign’s blog , by attendees at Internet-organized “meetups”, by recipients of forwarded newsletters and participants in listserv conversations, by instantly-empowered websurfers visiting his campaign site where individual donations are two clicks away (instead of 4 on Lieberman’s site –and you have to know that donations are in the “Get Involved” section). Listen to the difference in voice between the two men’s campaign sites (taken from the topmost article on the front page of each site):

Our campaign is about bringing people together. Every day more and more people are coming together to restore our communities and our nation’s traditional role as an idealistic moral force in the world. Over 262,000 Americans have signed up for our grassroots campaign, and you can join them by clicking here: http://www.deanforamerica.com/signup

Joe Lieberman’s campaign today launched a new website http://www.JoesJobsTour.com — highlighting his ongoing “Joe’s Jobs Tour” across the United States. The site features a map of Lieberman’s tour stops, a state-by-state listing of the 3.1 million jobs lost under George Bush, photos from the trail, and Lieberman’s proposals for getting back the jobs lost under George Bush and creating new jobs.

It’s clear which of these sites is inviting us to join the conversation, and which is pushing pre-packaged information at us. What Cluetrain recognizes is that we are individual human actors who want to live connected lives in a humanized world, not interchangeable, passive consumers, workers, or voters noticeable only for our contribution to aggregate statistics. We don’t want to be sold to or campaigned to, we want to be spoken with. Cluetrain presents not just a picture of business for corporations to try to emulate, but a vision of society in which alienation and apartness are overcome and conversation, voice, and craft assume (reassume?) their proper role.

1 comment to Chasing the Cluetrain

  • Anonymous

    You know, I got a big kick at how applicable this all is to events in my life over the last couple of years.
    I used to work at an independent store, which was bought over by a chain. You know the story. The chain wanted our customer base, but sure as hell didn’t want to practice customer service as we had done. They wanted that one way pipeline.
    2 years later- I’m out of that business ( they didn’t like independnet me, either) and they are struggling in the area.
    People don’t like the one way pipeline.
    Best Wishes- Mike

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