Cluetrain Manifesto: Eight Years On

“If you don’t think you need this book to better understand your market, that’s your second mistake!” – Seth Godin

The Cluetrain Manifesto was published almost eight years ago, in April, 1999. Written by Chris Locke, Doc Searls, David Weinberger and Rick Levine. I bought it mostly because it included the rather amusing phrase “End Of Business As We Know It” on the cover.

However, it turned out they were right. We were entering a huge new, customer-driven era. It was the end of one-way internet business as we knew it.

The Cluetrain Manifesto had one great idea: customers talk. Companies could no more control this conversation than they could control a thousand runaway trains, so if they didn’t want to be flattened, they needed to join that conversation. That conversation had a different sound to the normal corporate communications between corporation and customer. This sound wasn’t brochure speak, this was a more genuine sound. If people thought a product was crap, they’d write “this product is crap!” And because they were on the internet, they weren’t just saying it to one or two people; they were often saying it to thousands, if not millions, of people.

Powerful stuff.

Central to this idea was the concept of personal publishing, often by way of blogs.

Having read the Cluetrain Manifesto, I decided to start a blog on the topic of search engines. It was called Search Engine, which was rather uninventive as far as names go, but blogs were pretty much unheard of at the time, outside a dedicated blogging community. Seriously, people used to say “what’s a blog?”. Even my spell checker is still trying to correct it to “bog”.

At the time, the blogging community was rabidly un-commercial. I knew it would go commercial before too long, as newsgroups eventually did during the first internet phase. If something is to last on the internet, then commerce eventually enters the picture.

I was most taken by the idea of using a personal voice. A lot of tech reporting at the time, wasn’t personal. It was journalistic. Sometimes you just want someone to say what they really think, without the need to balance their opinion, or risking offending people, particularly advertisers. So I wrote about what I knew something about, which was search engines. It was unashamedly unbalanced, and I dare say, probably risked offending people. My little contribution to the search community.

Little did I know, but by writing that blog, I’d receive all sorts of unimagined things:

  • a stalker
  • trips around the world, including Japan, and Microsoft in Seattle
  • so many great contacts and friends
  • invites to speak at conferences
  • business opportunities
  • insider information
  • job offers
  • lots of free stuff
  • cash for writing
  • I met David Weinberger

Using the personal voice had real benefits, especially considering I was living thousands of miles away from anywhere that counted in the technology world.

Eight years on, what did the Cluetrain get right? If you look at the 95 Theses, a sly reference to the Disputation of Martin Luther on the Power and Efficacy of Indulgences in the church, they pretty much describe the internet as it is now:

  • Networked markets are beginning to self-organize: see Digg, YouTube, MySpace etc
  • Conversations among human beings sound human. They are conducted in a human voice – the personal voice is rapidly becoming the internet default
  • Hyperlinks subvert hierarchy – obviously

….and so on, and so on.

The book was wild, crazy, overblown and out of control. It often rambles, heads off on tangents, and beats the topic to death.

It was also right.

While it is true that conversations aren’t needed on the internet in order to do business, and the internet can’t be so easily summarized, conversations are a lot more important as an e-commerce concept than they used to be back when the book was written, and most of the value on the internet is now held by companies that understand and use conversations as an operating principle.

When will the next book as right as the Cluetrain Manifesto come along?

If you haven’t done so already, and want to read the ClueTrain Manifesto, you can do so online. There’s also a pdf.

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