When The Cluetrain Manifesto appeared on the web in 1999, neither its supporters nor its authors believed it was trying to say anything particularly new. Rather, the 95 theses and the following chapters — written in almost a stream of consciousness, psychoanalytic style befitting of something labeled a “manifesto” — were thought to merely point out the obvious to the many who refused to accept it: Companies and organizations now had much less control of information as the web had become a previously unheard-of medium for conversation. It was published in its original incarnation on the web in April 1999 and an expanded printed edition became available in 2000. This year marks the 10-year anniversary of its debut.

I recently spoke to three of the four authors of the manifesto about the last decade and the relevance of their words today. Does the existence of Twitter merely confirm what they asserted about the near-instantaneous conversational tone of online media? Surprisingly, their individual answers varied widely (some were almost borderline curmudgeonly) but all seemed to agree that, for the most part, the “Cluetrain Manifesto” has continued to be relevant and — with a few exceptions — its 95 theses have held up to the test of time.

The Manifesto

The manifesto — divided up and written by four authors — is directed almost entirely at those who had previously viewed the world through a mass media lens, asserting that the Internet had become a means for one-on-one communicating and that the genie could not be put back into the bottle. The writing stresses the need for authenticity above all else, claiming the user base — the customers — would bypass corporate PR rhetoric and take near-complete control of a brand.

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I recently reread the document in its entirety and within the context of the Web 2.0 years — which are defined by the ease of communicating without technical expertise — it was easy to detect the themes and debates that are still being dissected today. Though blogs certainly existed when the manifesto was composed, they weren’t as ubiquitous as they are now, and social networks, social bookmarking and Twitter were years away.

Twitter

In 1999 when Cluetrain was published, Rick Levine was the president of a company called Mancala, a web start-up in Boulder, Colorado, but today he makes luxury chocolates for a company he started with his brother. Though he’s operating what some would consider a more traditional offline business, he told me he still uses the Net to promote his venture (“I’m still blogging, still Twittering,” he said.) When I asked him about the micro-blogging service, he said that its 140-character limit may be the key to forcing companies to shed their inauthentic voices:

I think what’s happening — what Twitter does is it’s forcing you to start a conversation. When there’s a company on Twitter, on the other end of that wire there’s a person typing 140 characters. They work for a company, but it makes it much harder to have a corporate pre-digested official response. So what we were talking about in Cluetrain was saying there had to be a real person on the other end of the line who is participating in the conversation.

With just a blog, it’s still possible to be a corporate shill doing blog postings. And that’s not human, no more reflection of a real person’s voice than any PR exercise. So it’s possible to masquerade in a blog and have some lip service to corporate PR. It’s much harder with Twitter because it is a real conversation, it’s happening more in real time, and the good news is that it’s forcing companies to have a human voice in the conversation.

But when I asked Christopher Locke about the service, he was more skeptical about it.

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Christopher Locke

“I’m not a big Twitter fan,” he told me. “Well for one thing, I don’t live on a cell phone, in fact I don’t even have a cell phone. I’m pretty much a recluse at this point in my life. I sit in front of my laptop all day long; if I’m awake I’m online and even sometimes when I’m asleep I’m online.”

Still Relevant

I asked Locke how the manifesto has remained relevant within the last decade, and he pointed to file-sharing as an example of an industry struggling in vain against the book’s theses.

“One of the first big battles was the RIAA and the question of whether you can you put music in a box and prevent file-sharing of MP3s,” he said. “I don’t know the state of all the copyright law — it’s a whole study I’m not very up on. But basically, no one’s been able to put this back in a box, which I think is what we predicted. Once the genie is out — it was out in 1999 — it was clear. There were attempts to prevent the kind of anarchy and free-wheeling stuff that we’ve seen, but it was frivolous, it was hopeless.”

The Cluetrain author said that in 2002 he “unplugged in a major way” from the Internet and got interested in a “radically different set of things.” This led to the launch of a blog called Mystic Bourgeoisie, a site that carries the tagline, “The unlikely story of how America slipped the surly bonds & came to believe in signs & portents that would make the middle ages blush.” The blog seems to be attacking New Age spiritualism (the posts do not provide much context) and Locke told me he hopes to develop the project into a book.

David Weinberger, who has continued to write about the significance of the Internet, told me he isn’t surprised that industries are still showing resistance to the manifesto’s theses.

“There’s real progress and it’s a daily struggle,” he said. “I think it’s likely to be a daily struggle for a generation. Many of the changes we now take for granted, and thus they are invisible to us. There was a time when if you wanted to buy a car, you had to rely upon the information that the car dealer gave you. These days the car’s website is maybe the last place you go to.”

When asked why he thought this struggle continues, Weinberger said it was because there are real risks involved with online media.

“Institutional participation in the leading edge of social media is always going to be tinged with embarrassment,” he said. “The leading edge is always where they’re going to be most exposed and will likely do things in which they look foolish. And I salute companies that are willing to look foolish.”

Advertising Still works

I asked each of the authors I interviewed (Doc Searls, the fourth writer, did not respond to my interview request) if there were any theses they felt were wrong — and two of three pointed to thesis number 74, which read, “We are immune to advertising. Just forget it.”

“That was clearly wrong,” Locke said. “Advertising isn’t going to work? Yes, it can. Google is the biggest brand and company going and they’ve made it completely on Internet advertising, and so checkmate.”

Weinberger seemed to agree.

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David Weinberger

“It was really shortly after that that I smacked myself in the head and said that ‘Well, a lot of those theses are big and bold,’” he said. “They’re not subtle, which I think is appropriate for what we were trying to do. But that one, I think we were just wrong, and I wish I had slapped my head before we published it. Because though advertising has changed, the kind of advertising that appeals to the lizard part of our brain, that does work.”

Later this year, a new edition of “The Cluetrain Manifesto” will be published, with a new forward and new content. The last decade — with the rise of blogging, social networking, and YouTube — has seen a vast increase in the level of online conversation mentioned in the book, but the old media filter still remains as a powerful broker for influence and branding.

And while there are weekly reports of companies dipping their feet into social media, there are still daily squabbles between the Cluetrain evangelists and those who have so far resisted change. But according to the manifesto, whether they accept the change is irrelevant, because the online (authentic) conversation will carry on with or without them.

Simon Owens is a former newspaper journalist and an associate editor for MediaShift. He currently works as an online analyst for New Media Strategies. You can read more of his writing at his blog or contact him at simon[.]bloggasm [at] gmail.com.

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