If Doc Searls is a Twitter fan, it's with good reason. Twice in the past year, when fire threatened his home in Santa Barbara, Calif., he turned to microbloggers for news. "Twitter was an extremely helpful way to stay current with what was going on," Searls says, echoing comments made earlier by those who endured last winter's terror attacks in Mumbai, and this summer's election turmoil in Iran.
But Searls isn't just any Twitter user. He's co-author of The Cluetrain Manifesto, a website and book that in 1999 railed against companies hell bent on bottling the Internet for commercial use instead of plugging into the global conversation it promised. As Searls and co-authors Rick Levine, Chris Locke, and David Weinberger put it in the very first of 95 theses spelled out in the Manifesto, "markets are conversations." Talk like a human being, engage honestly with the marketplace, or die.
The decade since has been kind to Cluetrain's core thesis. Collaborative open source technologies have thrived as inhuman command-and-control systems have begun to fade. Consider IBM. Once wedded to the mainframe computer — the ultimate command-and-control system — Big Blue is now one of the world's largest users of and advocates for the open source Linux operating system.
And thanks to email, blogs, instant messaging, RSS feeds, Facebook, FriendFeed, and certainly Twitter, today's Internet user is like a recent Toastmasters graduate, eager to try his new social skills on anyone who'll listen.
So surely Searls, Levine, Locke, and Weinberger agree with venture investors who now value Twitter at $1 billion? Talk is no longer cheap. The Cluetrain Manifesto has been manifested, right? We had to ask.
"Value and valuation are not the same," says Searls, who has tweeted 1,600 times to his more than 8,700 followers. "The difference is the same as that between reality and perception, or between usefulness and sell-ability. They may overlap, but they are different."
Yet there's no denying Twitter's popularity. The microblogging service attracted 20.8 million unique visitors in the U.S. last month, comScore reports. Facebook, the most powerful of the social media magnets, attracted 92.2 million U.S. visitors in August. Investors see value in those numbers. Today, Twitter accepted $100 million in new funding from Insight Venture Partners, T. Rowe Price, Institutional Venture Partners, Spark Capital and Benchmark Capital.
Cluetrain's co-authors don't profess to know whether $1 billion is a fair value for Twitter. But they wonder if investors understand that Cluetrain's core thesis isn't a reversible equation. Conversations aren't markets.
"In one week, Oprah racked up well over half a million followers on Twitter. There's an instance of a 'conversation'—and you know we need the scare quotes—being treated as a market. No matter how much you like Twitter, no matter how crucial you see it as being to the brave new world of social media, I'm sorry, that's just the same old bullshit," Locke wrote in an April blog post.
Similarly, Levine sees Twitter as a platform for commerce. "No one bought into Twitter because they think conversation is valuable," he says. "They're seeing butts in seats."
So Twitter isn't the ideal Cluetrain's co-authors had hoped for a decade ago: a digital version of an ancient farmer's market, defined as much by stories and conversations as fruits and vegetables. But it's closer than anything we've seen before.
"Whether it's typing back-and-forth in real time, which is pretty close to the canonical sense of conversation, or whether it's an exchange that is slower ... they're still people engaging with one another around shared interests in their own voice. A lot of the Internet's value comes from that. It's a fundamental human need," Weinberger says.
The trouble with betting on a not-quite-conversational platform such as Twitter is that its incompleteness virtually guarantees something more comprehensive will replace it.
"Ten years after Cluetrain went up on the Web, I am convinced that we are still in the Net's Paleozoic [era]. Google, Facebook and Twitter are early arthropods and echinoderms," says Searls. "Trilobites may have ruled the Paleozoic (they were around for more than a quarter billion years) but they died off and other eras followed, with many more interesting life forms."