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Thanks to Keith McArthur for clueing me in on Cluetrainplus10, in which folks comment on each of Cluetrain’s 95 theses, on roughly the 10th anniversary of the day Cluetrain went up on the Web. (It was around this time in 1999.)

The only thesis I clearly remember writing was the first, “Markets are conversations.” That one was unpacked in a book chapter, and Chris Locke has taken that assignment for this exercise. Most of the other theses are also taken, so I chose one of the later ones, copied and pasted here:

71. Your tired notions of “the market” make our eyes glaze over. We don’t recognize ourselves in your projections—perhaps because we know we’re already elsewhere. Doc Searls @dsearls

Ten years later, that disconect is still there. Back when we wrote Cluetrain, we dwelled on the distance between what David Weinberger called “Fort Business” and the human beings both inside and outside the company. Today there is much more conversation happening across those lines (in both literal and metaphorical senses of the word), and everybody seems to be getting “social” out the wazoo. But the same old Fort/Human split is there. Worse, it’s growing, as businesses get more silo’d than ever — even (and especially) on the Net.

For evidence, look no farther than two of the most annoying developments in the history of business: 1) loyalty cards; and 2) the outsourcing of customer service to customers themselves.

Never mind the inefficiencies and outright stupidities involved in loyalty programs (for example, giving you a coupon discounting the next purchase of the thing you just bought — now for too much). Just look at the conceits involved. Every one of these programs acts as if “belonging” to a vendor is a desirable state — that customers are actually okay with being “acquired”, “locked-in” and “owned” like slaves.

Meanwhile, “customer service” has been automated to a degree that is beyond moronic. If you ever reach a Tier One agent, you’ll engage in a conversation with a script in human form:

“Hello, my name is Scott. How are you today?”

“I’m fine. How are you?”

“Thank you for asking. I’m fine. How can I help you today?”

“My X is F’d.”

“I’m sorry you’re having that problem.”

Right. They always ask how you are, always thank you for asking how they are, and are always sorry you have a problem.

They even do that chant in chat sessions. Last week I had a four chat sessions in a row with four agents of Charter Communications, the cable company that provides internet service at my brother-in-law’s house. This took place on a laptop in the crawl space under his house. All the chats were 99% unhelpful and in some ways were comically absurd. The real message that ran through the whole exchange was, You figure it out.

Last week in the New York Times, Steve Lohr wrote Customer Service? Ask a Volunteer. It tells the story of how customers, working as voluntary symbiotes in large vendor ecosystems, take up much of the support burden. If any of the good work of the volunteers finds its way into product improvement, it will provide good examples of what Eric von Hippel calls Democratizing Innovation. But most companies remain Fort Clueless on the matter. Sez one commenter on a Slashdot thread,

There’s a Linksys cable modem I know of that has a recent firmware, and by recent I mean last year or so. Linksys wont release the firmware as they expect only the cable companies to do so. The cable companies only release it to people who bought their cable modems from them directly. So there are thousands of people putting up with bugs because they bought their modem retail and have no legitimate access to the updated firmware.

What if I pulled this firmware from a cable company owned modem and wrote these people a simple installer? Would the company sing my praises then?

The real issue here is that people frequent web boards for support because the paid phone support they get is beyond worthless. Level 1 people just read scripts and level 2 or 3 people cant release firmwares because of moronic policies. No wonder people are helping themselves. These companies should be ashamed of providing service on such a low level, not happy that someone has taken up the slack for them.

Both these annoyances — loyalty cards and customer support outsourced to customers — are exacerbated by the Net. Loyalty cards are modeled to some degree on one of the worst flaws of the Web: that you have to sign in to something before you make a purchase. This is a bug, not a feature. And the Web makes it almost too easy for companies to direct customers away from the front door. They can say  “Just go to our Website. Everything you need is there.” Could be, but where? Even in 2009, finding good information on most company websites is a discouraging prospect. And the last thing you’ll find is a phone number that gets you to a human being, even if you’re prepared to pay for the help.

So the “elsewhere” we talked about in Cluetrain’s 71st thesis is out-of-luck-ville. Because we’re still stuck in a threshold state: between a world where sellers make all the rules, and a world where customers are self-equipped to overcome or obsolete those rules — by providing new ones that work the same for many vendors, and provide benefits for both sides.

This whole issue is front-burner for me right now. One reason is that I’m finally getting down (after three years) to unpacking The Intention Economy into a whole book, subtitled “What happens when customers get real power” (or something close to that). The other is that this past week has been one in which my wife and I spent perhaps half of our waking lives on the phone or the Web, navigating labyrinthine call center mazes, yelling at useless websites, and talking with tech support personnel who were 99% useless.

A Tier 2 Verizon person actually gave my wife detailed instructions on how to circumvent certain call center problems in the future, including an unpublished number that is sure to change — and stressing the importance of knowing how to work the company’s insane “system”. And that’s just one system. Every vendor of anything that requires service has its own system. Or many of them.

These problems cannot be solved by the companies themselves. Companies make silos. It’s as simple as that. Left to their own devices, that’s what they do. Over and over and over again.

The Internet Protocol solved the multiple network problem. We’re all on one Net now. Email protocols solved the multiple email system problem. We don’t have to ask which company silo somebody belongs to before we send email to them. But we still have multiple IM systems. The IETF approved Jabber’s XMPP protocol years ago, but Jabber has been only partially adopted. If you want to IM with somebody, you need to know if they’re on Skype or AIM or Yahoo or MSN. Far as I know, only Google uses XMPP as its IM protocol.

Meanwhile text more every day than they IM. This is because texting’s SMS protocol is universally used, both by all phone systems and by Twitter.

The fact that Apple, Microsoft, Skype and Yahoo all retain proprietary IM systems says that they still prefer to silo network uses and users, even after all these decades. They are, in the immortal words of Walt Whitman, “demented with the mania of owning things.”

Sobriety can only come from the customer side. As first parties in their own relationships and transactions, they are in the best position to sort out the growing silo-ization problems of second and third parties (vendors and their assistants).

Once customers become equipped with ways of managing their interactions with multiple vendors, we’ll see business growing around buyers rather than sellers. These are what we’re starting to call fourth party services: ones that Joe Andrieu calls user driven services. Here are his series of posts so far on the topic:

  1. The Great Reconfiguration
  2. Introducing User Driven Services
  3. User Driven Services: Impulse from the User
  4. User Driven Services: 2. Control

(He has eight more on the way. Stay tuned.)

Once these are in place, marketers will face a reciprocal force rather than a subordinated one. Three reasons: 1) because customer choices will far exceed the silo’d few provided by vendors acting like slave-owners; 2) customers will have help from a new and growing business category and 3) because customers are where the money comes from. Customers also know far more about how they want to spend their money than marketers do.

What follows will be a collapse of the guesswork economy that has comprised most of marketing and advertising for the duration. This is an economy that we were trying to blow up with Cluetrain ten years ago. It’s what I hope the next Cluetrain edition will help do, once it comes out this summer.

Meanwhile, work continues.

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Says Stowe Boyd (in a post that has been re-tweeted a bit),

We need to move past the Cluetrain Manifesto, and acknowledge that what people are doing on the web is much, much more than conversing. It’s not just a chat room: it’s an entire culture under development, and the conversation is just the tip of the iceberg.

All due respect to Stowe and the RTers, the Cluetrain Manifesto didn’t say the Web was about conversing. What it said was,

A powerful global conversation has begun. Through the Internet, people are discovering and inventing new ways to share relevant knowledge with blinding speed. As a direct result, markets are getting smarter—and getting smarter faster than most companies.

These markets are conversations.

If you read down through that original Web page, or the book chapter titled Markets Are Conversations, you’ll find that Cluetrain is not only a brief against marketing in general, but that it’s a book about markets.

Somewhere back there, Jakob Nielsen told me that Cluetrain’s authors had “defected” from marketing, and sided with markets against marketing. Now that the world is thick with “conversation marketing” and worse, I’d say that’s more true than ever.

So, to set the record straight, “Markets are conversations” is a statement about markets. It’s about getting real. Not about getting talkative.

Of course, countless marketers have jumped on what they think is the clue train, and with lots of BS about “conversational” marketing. In the old days, we called this “sales”.

For what it’s worth (a lot, I hope), a 10th anniversary edition of Cluetrain is due out this summer. It’s the original with some more chapters added, including a couple by other folks who found Cluetrain useful. I hope it helps correct other misunderstandings as well.

Stowe’s post is about “unmarketing”, about which he says,

I think companies need to take several steps back, and rethink their own motivations, before attempting to grapple with the new motivations of an open web citizenry.

First to be reconsidered — a la Cluetrain — is that markets are not what they used to be, where relatively passive consumers were messaged ‘to’. It has become an overused maxim that markets are conversations, which trivializes what is going on in the web, actually, and props up the notion of markets.

That stuff is right on. Bravo. But Stowe follows that with the first item I quoted. That’s where he — and everybody who thinks Cluetrain is just about “conversing” — goes off the rails.

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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 just posted The Open Source Force Behind the Obama Campaign over at Linux Journal. I wrote it in August for the November issue, which would come out in time for the election. But it was too long for the magazine, and too off-topic as well. So we shelved it, and planned to put it on the website after the election.

Originally I was going to update it; but after noodling around with that for awhile, and not quite getting it the way I wanted it, I realized it was more interesting as a piece of history: a snapshot in time. So that’s what I just put up there, adding only an introduction.

In going through this process, one thing that surpised me was how much I wrote about the Dean Campaign back in ’03-04. Since the Obama Campaign was what Britt Blaser calls “Dean done right”, you could say I had started covering the Obama campaign more than four years ago.

And maybe I was unintentionally influencing it as well.

In digging around for old stuff, I ran across Gary Wolf’s How the Internet Invented Howard Dean, in the January ’04 issue of Wired. One sidebar is The Howard Dean Reading List: How a bunch of books about social networking rebooted the Democratic system. Among those six is The Cluetrain Manifesto. So perhaps by that thin thread I can claim grand-paternity to Obama’s success.

Though not as credibly as, say, David Weinberger, who actually advised the Dean campaign. David, who is quoted in the Wired piece, not only co-wrote Cluetrain, but sole-authored Small Pieces Loosely Joined, which is another book on the Howard Dean reading list.

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Rich Sands posts Cluetrain Derailed? I respond here.

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