Do you have a clue about what the power and reach of the Web mean for the future of business? The creators of the Cluetrain Manifesto think they do. And they're eager — make that determined — to share their point of view with the "People of Earth" (to whom their manifesto is addressed). You might not agree with everything that these Web provocateurs say, you might not like their tone, but you will ignore their ideas at your peril. "People finally have permission to be human in the context of their work," says Christopher Locke, one of the manifesto's creators. "That's the real Internet story."
The Cluetrain Manifesto (www.cluetrain.com) began in a classically Web-centric way: A small band of activists posted to the Web 95 theses (Can you say "Martin Luther"?) and hoped that the world would take notice. When the site debuted in March 1999, it was discovered by "Wall Street Journal" columnist Thomas Petzinger Jr., who wrote about it a few weeks later. Gaining big visibility, the Cluetrain was off and running. Now, to help spread their ideas, the originators of the manifesto have published a book. "The Cluetrain Manifesto: The End of Business as Usual" (Perseus Books, $23) is a collection of essays that lend depth and texture to their edgy agenda and argumentative style.
What's powering this phenomenon? At the heart of the manifesto is a simple but radical proposition: The interconnection of hundreds of millions of people via the Web doesn't represent just another sales channel (e-commerce) or merely another opportunity to do the same work faster (email). Rather, it offers the potential to reframe some fundamental questions about business. Don't just ask, "How should our company interact with its customers?" Ask instead, "How can our people join conversations about products, markets, and value that are already taking place?" Don't just ask, "How can we get the most out of our people?" Ask instead, "What can we do to help our people identify and work with potential customers?"
But arriving at answers, the manifesto argues, requires open minds and authentic conversations — the sort of spontaneous, uninhibited exchanges that are rarely found on corporate Web sites. "To their intended online audiences, companies sound hollow, flat, literally inhuman," asserts the manifesto's thesis #14. The solution? Companies need to demonstrate "big values, a little humility, straight talk, and a genuine point of view," says thesis #22.
The book, like the manifesto, is the result of a collaboration of four Web-heads: Rick Levine, 41, cofounder of Mancala Inc., a Boulder-based startup; Locke, 52, a consultant who is best known for his alter ego, "RageBoy" (www.rageboy.com); Doc Searls, 52, senior editor of the "Linux Journal"; and David Weinberger, 49, a marketing consultant. These four people have managed to attract a remarkable group of fellow travelers, all of whom have become public signatories of the manifesto.
Eric Raymond, the open-source evangelist whose own provocative writings have captured the imagination of the software world, is on board. Other signatories include people from such companies as Bank of America, Cisco Systems, Compaq, FedEx, PricewaterhouseCoopers, Herman Miller, Kinko's, Merck, Microsoft, New York Life Insurance, and Saturn. And, like any Web phenomenon, Cluetrain has even spawned its own parody: the Gluetrain Manifesto
(www.gluetrain.com), which skewers the site's undeniable sense of self-importance. ("People of Uranus," the parody begins.)
Now the originators of the Cluetrain Manifesto face another challenge: how to deepen and broaden the conversation they started. Strangely, the manifesto just hasn't triggered the kind of spirited debate on the Web that its very argument would predict. For people who already "get" the Web, the manifesto has become a hard-to-disagree-with touchstone. For those still rooted in the old world of business, the manifesto reads like a communiqué from another planet. "I'm in favor of what they're advocating," says Jakob Nielsen, 42, a Web-design guru. "But by definition, 'clueless' people aren't going to read the manifesto."
Contact Christopher Locke by email (firstname.lastname@example.org).
Sidebar: Clued In
Rick Levine and Christopher Locke are two of the creators of the Cluetrain Manifesto — 95 theses that describe the new logic of business. It's a concise statement of a radical worldview. Here are some of those theses:
#1 Markets are conversations.
#12 There are no secrets. The networked market knows more than companies do about their own products. And whether the news is good or bad, they tell everyone.
#15 In just a few years, the current homogenized "voice" of business — the sound of mission statements and brochures — will seem as contrived and artificial as the language of the 18th century French court.
#26 Public Relations does not relate to the public. Companies are deeply afraid of their markets.
#46 A healthy intranet organizes workers in many meanings of the word. Its effect is more radical than the agenda of any union.
#50 Today, the org chart is hyperlinked, not hierarchical. Respect for hands-on knowledge wins over respect for abstract authority.
#80 Don't worry, you can still make money. That is, as long as it's not the only thing on your mind.
#95 We are waking up and linking to each other. We are watching. But we are not waiting.
A version of this article appeared in the March 2000 issue of Fast Company magazine.