BTRIPP (btripp) wrote,

I hear the train a'comin' ...

This is yet another of the gems I picked up at that Open Books “box sale” a couple of months back. I was thrilled to find a copy, as this was one of those books lurking in my “ought to read sometime” list in the less-traveled back corridors of my mind, and running into it there made it easy and convenient, almost imperative given the “just throw it in with the other books” nature of that sale!

I had been aware of The Cluetrain Manifesto: The End of Business as Usual since back in the days of Y2K hysteria … the original web site (which is still there, albeit in a dozen or so languages at this point), but it just seemed “one of those things pointing to the future” and didn't have that much of an effect on me. A collaborative effort of Rick Levine, Christopher Locke, Doc Searls, and David Weinberger, the book is an expansion of the initial “manifesto” (which only takes up 10 pages of this edition) with its “95 Theses” about how the Internet had been and would be changing communication, business, and culture. Given that this was produced a dozen years ago (an eternity in “web time”), it's impressive how well what's discussed and/or decreed in here has held up as on-target over the years. Reading it, I was frequently reminded of similar accuracy in Seth Godin's early works, which point along a very similar vector to this.

What's a “cluetrain” you ask? That's an interesting story:
During one discussion, Doc told us about an acquaintance at a company that was free-falling out of the Fortune 500 who said “The cluetrain stopped there four times a day for ten years and no one ever took delivery.” Almost before we stopped laughing, Doc told us, “I just registered the domain name ''”
The book arose from conversations along those lines …
Around the turn of 1999, we found ourselves talking about two closely related issues: why the media coverage of the Web was so wrong and why most businesses have their heads shoulders-high up their butts when it came to what the Web is about.
Obviously with 95 theses, I'm not going to list all of them, but they start with “1 – Markets are conversations.” and end with “95 – We are waking up and linking to each other. We are watching. But we are not waiting.” … the book consists of 7 essays which expand on themes raised in the Manifesto proper, penned by a combination of the 4 authors (Weinberger has two to himself, and co-authors another two, Locke has two to himself and co-authors one with Weinberger, Levine has one to himself, and Searles is co-author on another). As is frequently the case in collaboratively authored books, the tone varies piece-to-piece as different people step to the fore, however the focus is reasonably consistent, making this a better read than many “group effort” books tend to be.

Probably due to The Cluetrain Manifesto being centered more on communications that the specific modes thereof, there are less “anachronisms” than other “the web is going to change everything” books of its vintage, although what's discussed is certainly notably in a particular time frame. Here's a bit from a discussion of “Chat” (ala the classic AOL chat rooms or their predecessors in IRC):
Because it is immediate – taking place in realtime – chat can enable conversation that feels more genuine, more substantial, and more human than any other Net channel. … One definition of community is a group of people who care about each other more than they have to. This isn't a business exchange, even remotely. It is conversation, the verbal glue binding people separated by geography into a community.
This certainly puts a context around current Social Media platforms, almost defining the “special sauce” of Twitter, or what so many people find in the muddled morass of Facebook.

This is, at heart, however, a business book and most of the “meat” of it addresses the “cluelessness” of business-as-usual practices, especially as they relate to the new transparency and immediacy provided by the Web.
We have been trained throughout our business careers to suppress our individual voice and to sound like a “professional”, that is, to sound like everyone else. This professional voice is distinctive. And weird. Taken out of context, it is as mannered as the ritualistic dialogue of the seventeenth-century French court. ... We may be accustomed to the professional voice, but it isn't natural, God-given or neutral: it's the voice of middle-aged white men who will do anything to keep people from seeing how frightened they are.
Speaking as a middle-aged white man, I can attest to the fear, and the awful sense that nothing is the way “it was supposed to be” when we grew up, and I can almost sympathize with my starched-shirt peers who cling desperately to the “corporate facade” to try to preserve those things they are so worried of losing!

There is much in here as well about marketing, as that was how business first (and still) sees the Web, as a new TV to flog their messages ...
Of course companies and products can change their identities (and even their natures) over time. Volkswagen no longer bears (for most of us) their history stated in its very name: Hitler's car for the proud German people. … And if a company is genuinely confused about what it is, there's an easy way to find out: listen to what your market says you are. If it's not to your liking, think long and hard before assuming that the market is wrong, composed of a lot of people who are just too dumb or blind to understand the Inner You. If you've been claiming to be the Time Company for two years but the market still thinks of you as the Overpriced Executive Trophy Watchmaker, then, sorry, but that's your position. If you don't like what you're hearing, the marketing task is not to change the market's idea of who you are, but actually to change who you are. And that can take a generation: look at Volkswagen.
Needless to say, the MBA corps out there have only grudgingly taken any of this to heart, but it's refreshing to know that “the cluetrain” is at least trying to make deliveries at their offices.

The Cluetrain Manifesto is still in print, in a 10th anniversary paperback edition, but like-new hardcover copies can be had for a penny plus shipping (that would be $4 to the newbies) from the Amazon new/used vendors. And you can even get this one for free as the authors have the entire text up on the site if you want to take advantage of it. Whether you get it at retail, used, or free, I would recommend this as a useful thing to add to your mental files.

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Tags: book review
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