Book Review: The Cluetrain Manifesto


Levine, Locke, Searls, & Weinberger, The Cluetrain Manifesto: The End of Business as Usual(Perseus Press, 2000).

Corporate approaches to e-commerce have tended to be arrogant because top executives believed what their buddies in the major media corporations told them: the Internet is a broadcast medium. “Ever since the Web showed up,” writes Doc Searls, “business-as-usual has desperately tried to pipe-weld it onto the back end of TV’s history.” Marketing departments, PR agencies, and top execs have become dangerously insulated from the reality of consumers’ growing ability to tune out canned marketing-speak. The Internet has magnified this trend by allowing us to converse with one another to ascertain if the messages are true. Companies which are willing to accept that markets are conversations (as they were in ancient times, in the days of the first markets) and that sales are merely the exclamation point on a transaction conducted in a human voice, will not only make money, but add a touch of humanity to the process.

The book triggered some indigestion in high places, but was also quietly admired by self-styled rebels toiling in management positions within major corporations and consultancies. To tell the truth, it doesn’t always sit well with us. At first, in fact, it seemed downright strange when comfortable ad industry types and veteran business reporters suddenly turned around and started parroting the grating Cluetrain-style anti-corporate jargon. Telling admittedly clueless captains of industry to “stick forks in their heads” and “get on the cluetrain” and such sounds more like summer camp gone wrong than the type of behavior we’d expect from adults. Yet the style has become common currency now, since it tends to make even dull business reading fun. Whoever allowed me to publish an article in Report on Business last year entitled “Corporate America, Stay Out of My Inbox,” must have been a secret Cluetrain fan. Every week, it seems, there is a new RageBoy wannabe. The latest convert is Steve Harmon, formerly a high-flying Internet stock tout and now an independent investment analyst, author, and fund manager. Harmon, in Zero Gravity, his book about Silicon Valley venture capital, had breathlessly detailed the pursuit of broadband-Internet-over-cable technology by the founders and funders of At Home Corp. In a recent instalment of his email newsletter High Velocity, Harmon writes that “helping [ExciteAtHome’s]
demise in our view was a bumbling corporate cluster flagellation where AT&T’s honcho Michael Armstrong donned medieval whips and chains and proceeded to give Excite’s George Bell a lesson in bureaucracy.” Honcho? Cluster flagellation? But the point is made: monopolies made ExciteAtHome, and they unmade it when it suited them.

See, this rage schtick really doesn’t belong to comfortable mid-life boomers, or Wall-Street-wise thirty-something fund managers, so one naturally assumes that it has become merely convenient for some well-placed pundits to appropriate it for stylistic reasons (i.e., to market themselves). In 1992, Douglas Coupland wrote a book called Generation X: Tales of an Accelerated Culture. The book was a perfect square, and you could only get it in paperback. (Note to Amazon: when I type “generation X” into your search box, I do not want the Tom Brokaw book about, well, his generation. Fix that!) Although it was intended as fiction, not documentary, Generation X spoke to many of the questions raised in Cluetrain, such as the fact that we hate to be treated like some prefabricated “target demographic” rather than complex individuals. When then-mostly-underemployed Gen X slagged corporate orthodoxy, they weren’t thanked for being helpful canaries in the coal mine warning the rest of society that the volume of mega-corporations’ inane advertising was reaching noxious levels. Rather, Gen-X’ers were deemed bitter, spoiled, slackers. When a gaggle of Boomers (who happen to have spent decades working as advertising industry insiders being part of the problem, not the solution) trot out the same message seven years later, they get lucrative speaking gigs doing their anti-corporate schtick for the amusement of the Fortune 500 gang. Plus ça change …

In spite of its self-importance, Cluetrain is required reading for anyone who wants to understand how companies can connect meaningfully with their customers. Oh, most of the biggest companies won’t get it, of course, and why would they want to? They can hire Dennis-Miller-style jesters to ensure that one-way marketing messages at least come out sounding like conversations. And if that fails, why not invite RageBoy Himself into the booth with Dan and Al.

Meanwhile, back at the world’s biggest online bookstore, people searching for “Generation X” are given a recommended music pick: an extended mix of Hot in the City by Billy Idol. Listen, I am not your target demographic! The only place they play Billy Idol anymore is at the ballpark! You’re way off!

Cool Quote (Doc Searls):

“The assignment was painfully hopeless. Oh, the new computer was nice and the usual customers would buy it, but the larger market — the one this company needed to penetrate — could care less. The company had been too silent too long. With nothing to lose, I told them the truth.

‘We have three problems,’ I began. ‘First, there is no market for your message, least of all among journalists, who want facts and stories. Second, there is no market for your secrecy. You have long ignored the market, now they will choose to ignore you. Third, there really is no market for your press conference. Journalists want to be briefed exclusively.’

They stared at me.”

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