In April 1999, some brave souls spoke for many when they tacked 95 theses on the Internet at cluetrain.com. The basic message went like this: “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.”
The phrase “markets are conversations” was central to the message (in fact, that’s the first of the 95 theses), and the warning to businesses is that they need to realize the potential of networked people having conversations to disrupt business as usual, dethroning the stranglehold that controlled communications and marketing efforts by businesses has had on the marketplace for way too long. The theses and subsequent book called for businesses to join the conversation in the marketplace as real people, or those in the marketplace will go elsewhere and gladly engage in doing business with other companies that are willing to have real, human relationships with them. In a sense, markets via networked communications between people have the opportunity to function more like the street bazaars of old than the industrialized, sterilized, distanced supply chains we hear more about today.
To get a good, quick feel for what Cluetrain was (and is still) about, take a few minutes to read the 95 theses on the homepage at cluetrain.com. The site is intentionally preserved to look like it did in 1999 to capture a piece of history. Read it a couple of times and be amazed that it was written that long ago. Much of it reads like it was written today. The original 95 theses do not attempt to group themselves into subtopics – at least not in a clear, easily outlined way. There are connected theses that assume placement next to each other, though, so you may benefit from the simple categorization of them on the Cluetrain Manifesto Wikipedia page.
While I first read the 95 theses a number of years ago, I had never read the book until this week. The first book was published in January, 2001 – The Cluetrain Manifesto: The End of Business as Usual. You can read the entirety of that book for free online here if you like. Ten years later, the book I just finished reading was written – The Cluetrain Manifesto: 10th Anniversary Edition. In addition to the full text of the original book, there is a new introduction and additional chapters by the authors including reflections on the relevance of the ideas today and updates describing what has and has not come to pass as predicted in the original text. While not everything predicted has come true (at least not yet), the book is amazingly current and, I think, still prophetic. Prophecy isn’t always about predicting the future. It is as much about proclaiming a message to those in the present about a situation and speaking to the consequences of acting or not acting properly in response. In that sense, the book is still prophetic.
Anyone involved with marketing and communications in businesses should read the book. In fact, as consumers who are doing the very things this book predicted over a decade ago, there are very few for whom the book isn’t relevant. There are far too many companies in 2013 who still haven’t learned the lessons these authors were shouting from the rooftops in 1999. There are too many companies mistakenly believing they can and do control communications about their company, products and services. There are too many refusing to acknowledge – much less participate in – the marketplace conversations. There are still company-erected barriers keeping employees from participating (at least officially) in the public conversations. Walled forts around many businesses seem to do all they can to keep the customer out of the daily workflow and at a safe distance, harming relationships rather than doing the things that would develop relationships and goodwill.
There are probably many people who would be offended in some way (possibly many ways) reading Cluetrain. Fortunately, I have enough of a rebel within me to thoroughly enjoy the ideas of the book throughout as well as the unhindered frankness with which they are presented, if not all the salty language. If you are part of a marketing or communications team in a large business, be sure to put your big girl or big boy pants on when you read it, because this is not your typical business book and it will regularly slap you around a bit. That’s probably a good thing.
There will be others who just don’t buy what Cluetrain is selling. I found it humorous to find John C. Dvorak’s 2002 PC Magazine article about Cluetrain quoted on the Wikipedia page admitting to such, and then imagining far more about the book’s devotees: “I don’t get it… the apparent faith in this odd vision of an idealistic human-oriented internetworked new world/new economy marches forward. I imagine all these folks holding hands in a large circle, rolling back and forth, with some in the middle of the circle, spinning and chanting and hugging, all naked. I’m betting that most of these folks go to Burning Man and all of them write blogs about it and how cool it was. They link to each others’ blogs and read what they say about each other—all highly complimentary.”
That’s funny stuff, John, and I can even imagine the same. Some paragraphs of the book read like the author was as high as a kite while writing it. Still, you have to get past such occasionally awkward moments and style and hone in on the point of it all which was then and still is perfectly valid and important.
Whether you agree or not with the basic premise of Cluetrain, and whether you agree or not with many of the 95 theses, this is at minimum good fodder for an important conversation many businesses still need to have.
By the way, the name “Cluetrain” was spawned from a comment about a Fortune 500 business that didn’t get the message of the book: “The clue train stopped there four times a day for ten years and they never took delivery.” Here’s hoping that you, dear reader, are part of a business that takes delivery of the many clues The Cluetrain Manifesto has to offer.
Now, put on something tie-dyed, grab your favorite beverage, kick back without your shoes and go read those 95 theses. Then, if you’re willing, either read the original or 10th anniversary edition of the book. It’s worth your time. I promise.