In the beginning (or nearly so), there was the Internet. And it was good, quite good. But it was also misunderstood — the victim of money, hype, and its own stunning and rapid ascendance to great heights.
To clear the air and set things straight, four wise men delivered the Cluetrain Manifesto in 1999 (which soon became a book). And that was good, if unorthodox. Originally, the Manifesto was nothing more than 95 theses, etched with some impatience but also with a nudge and a wink into the ether at www.cluetrain.com. “Markets are conversations,” proclaimed the first thesis. “Markets consist of human beings, not demographic sectors,” went the second. More provocative was the sixth: “The Internet is enabling conversations among human beings that were simply not possible in the era of mass media.”
The Manifesto was born so that, put simply, we all might get a freakin’ clue. Here — in markets, conversations, and networks — was what was truly important about the Internet.
Then the dotcoms exploded, IPOs cratered, and the Web became tarnished. And that was bad. It was so bad that folks began to bad-mouth the Web, dismiss the Internet, and downplay the digital future.
And so it is that David Weinberger, one of the Manifesto’s four original wise men, now returns. His new task: not just to explain the Web (again), but, even more important, to put right all of the misunderstandings, bad press, and ill will that have recently attached themselves to the Internet. His new message: The Web is, if anything, underhyped. The World Wide Web derives its value, Weinberger argues, from all of us who travel its pages. We are all small pieces of a grand machine, “loosely joining ourselves in ways that we’re still inventing.” Hence his book: Small Pieces Loosely Joined: A Unified Theory of the Web (Perseus Books, April 2002).
Weinberger, a former academic and public-relations executive, currently runs the strategic-marketing consulting firm Evident Marketing Inc. He also publishes JOHO: The Journal of the Hyperlinked Organization, an online ‘zine that looks at how the Web affects the way that businesses work. In an interview with Fast Company, Weinberger offers a short course on the World Wide Web and its true power.
You say that the Web hasn’t been hyped enough. Given all of the hype of the past few years, what did we miss?
The Web is a quintessentially human expression. In every case, what makes it interesting is not only the content but also the fact that it has a human voice and that it is part of the context of human life. It’s not simply data or transactions from machine to machine. Certainly, there are transactions on the Web — just as there are thousands of practically useless corporate Web sites. But that’s not what’s exciting. What’s exciting is the ability for people to go online and talk with other people in their own voices. In order for the Web to work, there have to be individuals who are willing to express themselves in ways that are as idiosyncratic as they are.
But people can be idiosyncratic in the real world too.
Sure, idiosyncrasy is completely possible outside the Web. But there are some obvious differences. First of all, the barriers of distance are knocked down on the Web. But more important, real-world space demands consistency. People live in a community for decades because they have to hire moving vans to go someplace else. So we see the same people every day, and we feel compelled to maintain a consistent personality. On the Web, we don’t have those constraints. We can choose to be anonymous, or we can choose to create multiple new selves — playful or devious selves. Part of the joy of the Web is being able to shed the tight skin that the real world wraps us up in.
Most important, the Web connects us in very different ways. There is a person with whom I’ve been corresponding over the past 10 years on a very intermittent basis — perhaps once every two years — and then only when we have something interesting to talk about. If I come across a link, and I’m reminded of her, then I’ll forward the URL. I don’t know how to refer to this person. She’s neither an acquaintance nor a friend. But we have a relationship that’s based on a shared interest — and I expect to have those kinds of relationships for the rest of my life.
If you believe, as I do, that humans are fundamentally connected — that to be human means to be social — then the Web offers a realm of pure connection. By its very nature as a web, it is hyperlinked. So for the first time, we have a medium that is a pure expression of our natural connectedness. The real world presents all sorts of barriers that prevent us from connecting as fully as we’d like to. The Web releases us from that. If connection is our nature, and if we’re at our best when we’re fully engaged with others, then the Web is both an enabler and a reflection of our best nature.
What does all of that connectedness mean to me if I’m running a company that sells, say, toaster ovens?
The biggest mistake that most companies make is to think that a Web site belongs to them. Companies just don’t get it. Individuals believe that the Web belongs to us. The little tumorous nodes of commercial sites strike us as intrusions on our space. If I’m interested in toaster ovens, I’ll do much better if I find other toaster-oven owners on an independent site and talk to them — if I show my public face and share an interest. On the Web, companies can only control the conversation by being interesting — and most corporations are afraid of being interesting.
To oversimplify, the Web does two things: It automates, and it connects. If I were selling toaster ovens, I would automate the online process that enables people to get information about what I sell and the stores that sell my products. I’d make that process run like clockwork.
But be aware that convenience is probably the least interesting thing about the Web. It doesn’t change the world. I’d think about the ways in which I could connect my customers to one another — even if that means that I won’t always be a part of the conversation. I’d also think about the ways in which my employees can connect with my customers.
Most important, I’d avoid the temptation to think of my Web site as mine. Look at the Royal Dutch/Shell site [www.shell.com]. There, visitors can engage in online conversations on a wide range of social issues. Many of the comments are critical of the company, but Shell doesn’t interfere. The company understands that it can’t own the Web. In a way, that’s a huge — and rare — leap forward.
In fact, corporations will just have to get used to the fact that, because of the Web, individuals have a lot more access to information than ever before.
A generation ago, individuals gratefully accepted whatever information they were given. The experience of going to a doctor or buying a car was typical: The doctor or the salesperson was the source of all knowledge and data. Now, in almost every interaction that we have with a professional, we take it for granted that we are also a partner and a decision maker. Largely because of the Web, we expect that a network of information will be there and will be made available to us.
You have observed that what’s possible on the Web will ultimately change behaviors in the real world, for the same reason that the ground doesn’t feel bouncy enough when you get off a trampoline. Access to information is one example. What’s another?
Look at how we organize projects. The Web has blown up an assumption that is so old, it’s practically genetic: The bigger the project, the more control you need. If you’re building a treehouse, we would agree that you just need a back-of-the-envelope sketch. But if you’re building the Hoover Dam, we would expect the need for hundreds of consultants, along with the consultants who teach the consultants.
For a certain class of projects, that’s correct. But the Internet was specifically designed to grow in number and richness of applications without having centralized controls. There are no permission forms to fill out before you post and download. The Web succeeds because it doesn’t require design control.
Now, if you’re in business, government, or education and you’re thinking about how to scale a project massively, you have to think about the possibility of doing it in Netlike fashion. You have to consider the opposite of what thousands of years of experience have shown us to be the only way to scale a project. You have to give up control over it.
The belief in centralized management isn’t just a business decision. It’s part of a larger, neurotic understanding about our place in the world. For the past century, Americans have been obsessed with controlling everything. It’s neurotic because the human condition is about living in a world that we didn’t make and that we can’t control. In that sense, the Web’s lack of control — its very architecture — is a celebration of being human in a universe that joyously overwhelms us.
Keith H. Hammonds (email@example.com) is a Fast Company senior editor. Visit David Weinberger on the Web (www.smallpieces.com).
Sidebar: Why the Net Really Changes Everything
In his book Small Pieces Loosely Joined: A Unified Theory of the Web, David Weinberger argues that, if anything, the World Wide Web hasn’t been hyped enough. The importance of the Web, he writes, isn’t about dotcom riches; it’s about changing the way we behave. Here are his five essential theses:
1. On the Web, all fame is local.
Fame on the Web is similar to the nature of craftwork, reaching orders of magnitude fewer people than those who engage in mass manufacturing, but providing a type of focused celebrity: Local craftspeople are known in their communities for and by their work. On the Web, of course, the community is defined by interest, not geography, and there is no natural boundary around how large the circle of fame can grow. And there is an intimacy to Web fame not typically found in the world of crafts.
2. The Web is all about groups.
The Internet is the opposite of a hand grenade thrown into a market: It’s almost as disruptive, but it brings people together rather than tearing them apart. People don’t join the Internet just to send an email to this or that person. They join to participate in the hundreds of different ways people associate. In this new social clearing, types of associations are being created with a rapidity unequalled in our history. The Web is a hotbed of experimental couplings.
3. Knowledge on the Web is a social activity.
The Web is a hodgepodge of ideas that violates every rule of epistemological etiquette. Much of what’s posted is wrong. It’s expressed ambiguously. But it also returns knowledge to its roots in the heated arguments in the passageways of Athens. Knowledge is what happens when people say things that matter to them, others reply, and a conversation ensues. In many Web conversations, we’ve given up certainty. But certainty isn’t a requirement for believing something.
4. The Web returns us to ourselves.
The Web is a powerful experience for many of us because it gives us a place free of what’s been holding back our better selves. It shows us more purely the truths of our human experience. That’s why it has excited our culture beyond any reasonable expectation: It helps to heal our alienation from our own experience. Its movement is toward human authenticity.
5. The Web will have its deepest effect as an idea.
Ideas don’t explode; they subvert. They take their time. And because they change the way we think, they are less visible than a newly paved national highway or the advent of wall-sized TVs. After a while, someone notices that we’re not thinking about things the way our parents did. The Web is entering the realm of our thoughts as a technology — as a medium. But its message as a medium is, ultimately, matter doesn’t matter.