“cluetrain manifesto”

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Most books come and go. Others stay — meaning that you’re likely to find them in most bookstores. Big ones, anyway. Quotable books have staying power. Especially the quotable ones that express unattainable ideals.

The Cluetrain Manifesto, it turns out, is one of those. The book hit the streets in January 2000, just in time, somebody said, to cause the dot-com crash. (I’d like to say we intended that, but if it were true I would have sold my dot-com stocks, which I didn’t. Instead I waited until their purpose in selling was reduction on captial gains for selling a house. This was back when houses could still be sold.)

I’m a born optimist, so I did expect Cluetrain to sell well. I just didn’t expect it to keep selling ten years after we first nailed up its 95 Theses on the Web. Nor did I expect writers to keep writing about it. But they have. And they do. More, it seems, than ever.

The most remarkable of the current crop is Alex Hillman’s Cluetrain-A-Day 2009, at his blog, Dangerously Awesome. His latest unpacks Thesis #5, People recognize each other as such from the sound of this voice. (Context: this thesis follows #3 Conversations among human beings sound human. They are conducted in a human voice and #4 Whether delivering information, opinions, perspectives, dissenting arguments or humorous asides, the human voice is typically open, natural, uncontrived.) In the post Alex answers a question that too often flummoxes me: “Name one good example of Cluetrain’s lessons put to work.” Alex offers Zappos:

Tony Hsieh (pronounced “Shay”) is the proverbial “Tweeting CEO”. Beyond Tony himself being extraordinarily accessible and candid about his life and his business on Twitter, he’s gone one step further. He’s encouraged his employees to tweet, too. And not just about business stuff, but about whatever they want. Whatever they are thinking. Whatever they are doing. It’s up to them.

But Zappos didn’t stop there.

Zappos built a website that consumes all of their employees’ tweets and republishes them. A megaphone for the collective voice of Zappos employees, in real time, for anyone to read.

But Zappos didn’t stop there.

Zappos also runs a blog network within their company, with contributions from the CEO and COO, all the way through the depths of the company. These blogs share not just company news, but insights, event announcements, musings, and more. They rarely link back into their product catalog. Instead, Zappos uses these opportunities to provide value, and establish natual dialogue between their customers and their employees.

Why? Because people are interested in other people. We recognize the human voice in others, and identify with them. Companies are not human, so we humans do not identify with their voice. But if the voices within the company, the human voices, are allowed to shine, customers can once again identify with “the company”.

Rather than have an ivory tower with now windows or doors, Zappos purposely put not just one human face on their company, but hundreds (435 at the date of writing this). What are the odds of calling in an order or customer service request to Zappos and getting a twittering CSR? Reasonably high. And that’s the Zappos way. Tony explains that Zappos culture, the collective voice of Zappos, is Zappos brand.

I couldn’t have said it better myself. More importantly, I wouldn‘t have, because I’m not engaged with the marketing market the way Alex is. He’s reforming it from the inside. I left the field a long time ago. Now I cheer star performers like Alex from the stands.

Nine years ago most responses to Cluetrain were of the thumbs up or down sort. Few offered constructive follow-ups, mostly because what one could do was pretty limited. We knew we weren’t in Kansas anymore, but Oz wasn’t built out. There weren’t even witches or munchkins. Just a scattering of yellow bricks and a wide-open landscape. Nevada without Las Vegas.

Blogs were around, but still new. In fact, Dave Winer urged me mightily to start a blog during the whole summer of ’99 when we were busy writing the book. But I didn’t relent until that Fall, when he literally sat me down and got me going with what became this blog here. Ev Williams started Blogger around that time too. Twitter (another Ev creation… lightning does sometimes strike twice, or more) came along much later. That’s why we have truly constructive Cluetrain-sourcing posts like this one by Michael Stephens, who thinks out loud, and eloquently, about libraries in an age when they are surrounded and suffused by the Net and a growing box of tools in the hands of readers.

Now here’s a fired reporter for (and now against) the Danville Register & Bee, sourcing Cluetrain in a schooling of the paper’s management.

And here’s Mirek Sopek , who blogs as the CEO of a business, saying,

This book is compulsory reading for all sales people in my company ….

See the citation:

“Although a system may cease to exist in the legal sense or as a structure of power, its values (or anti-values), its philosophy, its teachings remain in us. They rule our thinking, our conduct, our attitude to others.

The situation is a demonic paradox: we have toppled the system but we still carry its genes. “

Ryszard Kapuscinski, Polish journalist, 1991

Exactly. That’s why it’s so hard to change, or even to understand change when it happens anyway. For example, many of us can say we support “Net Neutrality”, but it’s almost impossible to talk aobut it without bringing in the faming and language of telcos. Laudable as Net Neutrality may be, few of us have ever experienced it. (Most “broadband” — a telco term — is not “neutral”. It is skewed to favor some uses and discourage others.) Imagine talking about the Net in, say, 1985. “Um, it’s like AOL or Compuserve, but nobody owns it, everybody can use it and anybody can improve it.” Or consider Richard Stallman‘s persistent need to explain free-as-in-freedom vs. “free-as-in-beer.” Some concepts take time to sink in, mostly because they require successful implementation, and then understanding of that success on its own terms. In the meantime, it’s explained in terms other than its own. Such is the case with both free software and Net Neutrality. In time both will be both established and well understood. (Though, speaking for myself, I think free software was better explained in the first place than Net Neutrality, but … whatever.)

Anyway, it’s all one big learning process. We educate each other.

I was just listening to this Utah Couchcast, for example. At the beginning one of the hosts suggests that Cluetrain is cyclical, coming along in booms — because Cluetrain was written during a boom. But this made me think about what seems to be a surge of recent interest in Cluetrain during a bust cycle. When we look back at Cluetrain’s success as a book, most of it came during the dot-com crash of 2000-2001.

Which brings us to the long view — something older people tend to have. (And that’s coming to include Cluetrain’s authors, two of whom have hit their sixties.) Cluetrain was diagnostic rather than prescriptive. This was intentional. One reason was time: we needed to get the book out on a tight deadline. Another was the plain and sad fact that the tools required for the revolution were not there. Some, such as blogging, were beginning to appear. But even there, syndication (another innovation by Dave) was not yet part of it. Nor was podcasting. Nor was “the cloud” of back-end services now only beginning to become widely used.

Cluetrain gets a lot of credit today for ushering in “social” stuff. That’s cool, but let’s face it: today’s “social” tools are still crude. All are miles away from whatever end states they’ll eventually reach, probably by evolving so far that they barely resemble the ancestors we use today.

All this, by the way, is a not-quick-enough brain dump as I work on a longer Cluetrain piece for print publication. Right now Google Blogsearch finds more than 50,000 results for a “cluetrain” search. Many, like the ones cited above, are too damned interesting. Collectively, they know far more about the subject than its authors, mostly because so many folks are putting Cluetrain to use somehow. In real estate, for example.

I could go on, but I have actual work to do.

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I think Michael Specht may have come up with the best way to pound through all 95 of Cluetrain‘s theses.

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