1At first glance, the neon orange and futuristic look of the cover is a sure indication that this is not your usual connect-the-dots business book. The Wall Street Journal called it « absolutely brilliant ». Whether one agrees or not, the novelty suggested wherein are the subtle voices of a forgotten faculty in organizational communication : speech. The authors argue that the Internet makes communication much easier and helps flatten hierarchy. While there exists scientific consensus that the Internet has great impact on communications, some authors, however, argue that technological determinism can lead to utopic societal projects and fantasies.
2The Cluetrain Manifesto owes its name to an executive describing his company’s plummet by saying : « The clue train stopped here four times a day for ten years and they never took delivery » ; nobody took advantage of the opportunities that laid before them.
- 1 Rick Levine is Web architect for Sun Microsystems’ Java Software group and creator of much of the (...)
3The four authors1 initiated a movement by creating a Web site on which they posted their thoughts. Many people supported their idea that Internet was changing the face of business and interaction, and added their comments. The Cluetrain website that launched this book has now become very extensive (http://www.cluetrain.com).
4The Cluetrain Manifesto contains seven essays which annoyingly repeat rather elaborate the content of 95 short statements or what the authors dubbed the « 95 theses ». This of course alludes to Martin Luther’s famous act of nailing his 95 theses on the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg in 1517. This act of defiance marked the beginning of the protestant movement or Reformation2 whose aim was a redistribution of power and a wider control of the information flow. The authors of the Cluetrain could have adopted the same spirit of reform instead of continuing to bash the « business as usual » concept without giving much credit to how business operates today or how it will do so in the future.
5The language is blunt, funny, direct and sometimes shocking. Also, the bright humor and fashionable cover distract the reader from the book’s lack of substance and sorely needed concise writing. Did the authors need to repeatedly use the word fuck and other vulgarities to achieve their witty reflections ? Freedom of speech and critical thought can still be served quite well by formal language.
6The authors see the marketplace as a speech community and Internet as a new way to quickly share information. Therefore, markets are becoming smarter.
7The main theme of the book takes its cue from the first statement : « Markets are conversations » (p. xii). In fact, the authors should have written « markets should be conversations » in order to argue that the Internet can make a change in organizational communication. According to the Manifesto, markets consist of conversations, not demographics or sectors. The Internet frees the traditional corporate from standard PR practices, from the urge to control « messages » and from the notion that customers are consumers. Email, mailing lists, newsgroups and such are breaking down the traditional barriers between customers and companies. Companies, which see the Web as obnoxious, will regret having missed the « clue train ». The real conversation networks, which are more and more direct, are those between customers, between suppliers and between customers and suppliers. Anonymity through Internet extends freedom of speech and is made easier. This communication network delivers to the global embrace promised by McLuhan (1968). Whether it is called speech community, online interaction or collective intelligence, the fact is that the web is enabling interactive conversations that were not possible during the age of mass media. According to the authors, conversation is making a comeback in a global way. The absence of centralized control gives the notion of community a new significance. The self-organized conversations are optimizing the resources by emphasizing the importance of language acts. This collective learning situation is reviving competition.
8What is the traditional marketing department to do ?
Marketing isn’t going to go away. Nor should it. But it needs to evolve, rapidly and thoroughly, for markets have become networked and now know more than business, and are a hell of a lot more fun than business. The voices are back, and voice brings craft : work by unique individuals motivated by passion (p. 113).
9Given that the markets are becoming smarter than companies, if organizations continue hiding behind firewalls, they will soon become obsolete.
10The third tenet hands back to business a fundamental trait of humanity : human language : « Conversations among human beings sound human. They are conducted in a human voice » (p. xii). Business cannot exist without human interaction ; whether it be direct interpersonal contact or mediated social links. The Industrial Revolution brought about many changes, including the one-way monologue that controlled human interactions, until the Internet broke those chains. Why keep silent and continue to watch mind-numbing, spirit-crushing TV shows and advertisements when you can interact online and actually have an authentic voice ? The voices of individuals will be heard, and those who do not listen will be left behind. According to the Manifesto, « the spiritual lure of the Web is the promise of the return of voice ». The authors’ aim is to support businesses and organizations that display integrity and honesty. This book intends to support businesses that wish :
[…] to grasp the human side of business and technology, and being human, try as we might, is the only fate from which we can never escape (Thomas Petzinger, Wall Street Journal, p. vi).
11Many thought that interpersonal contact would greatly suffer with the advent of the Internet. The authors of Cluetrain have drawn a very different conclusion. Dr. Wallace (1999) is not entirely of their opinion but concludes that the Internet has led to profound changes in organizations. She examines how the online environment can influence the way we behave, for better or worse. Marshall McLuhan, who outlined his vision before the very existence of the Web, saw electronic media as a return to collective ways of perceiving the world. As his promised global embrace seems to materialize, his insights take on new meanings.
After three thousand years of explosion, by means of fragmentary and mechanical technologies, the Western world is imploding. During the mechanical ages we had extended our bodies in space. Today, after more than a century of electric technology, we have extended our central nervous system itself in a global embrace, abolishing both space and time as far as our planet is concerned. Rapidly, we approach the final phase of the extensions of man – the technological simulation of consciousness, when creative process of knowing will be collectively and corporately extended to the whole of human society, much as we have already extended our senses and our nerves by the various media (1964 : 11).
12The seventh thesis (« Hyperlinks subvert hierarchy ») and chapter five, « The Hyperlinked Organization » (Weinberger), are intended to show how the interlinking of participants modifies the internal organization of companies. As the hierarchy flattens, the skills and competence prevail on social status. Conversations and relations that grow from serene and authentic social links are much stronger than those imposed by hierarchal castes. Conversations among participants will also prohibit large corporations from monopolizing the exchange of information. Wallace (1999) considers that the Net is an equalizer because age, race, physical appearance, ethnicity, accents, or disabilities are not immediately visible online. According to her, this characteristic of the Net influences interactions in fascinating ways since in face-to-face settings people rely heavily on them to form impressions.
Does racism, ageism, and other kinds of discrimination against outgroups disappear on the net ? Probably not as much as we had hoped, but some of it seems to be diminishing because the cues to outgroup status are not as obvious. The email address might reveal gender and other clues in the address, or the signature file might indicate occupation, nationality, or location, but they would generally not indicate race or age. In social settings, people might inquire about age, but few ask about race in any Internet forum. Contrast this with real life setting, in which a person’s race and age are two characteristics you notice immediately (1999 : 99).
13Technology has in part shaped the history of communication but technological determinism could lead to a society where individuals lose fundamental freedoms. Such authors as Pierre Levy, Manuel Castells, William Mitchell, Nicholas Negroponte, Michel Serres, and Alvin Toffler believe in the emancipatory possibilities of virtual reality, « cyberculture » and « worldwide interconnectivity ». According to Maigret (2003), the Internet embodies hopes and utopias more than any other « information and communication technology ». He argues that with each new « information and communication technology » wave of enthusiasm, hopes of a complete renewal of democracy have emerged and considers « cyberdemocracy » a myth comparable to « teledemocracy ». In fact, connectivity is still rather modest on a global plane (Boullier and Charlier, 1997 ; Haddon, 1999) and technological determinism could therefore create a hyperlinked community that would leave a large part of the population behind.
14The intellectual posture of the authors is that of many researchers who consider Internet as the medium that will put an end to social inequalities. This book portrays how common sense, doxa, opinion or belief still impregnate our outlook on new media.
15The mystical theories of gurus and prophets may help cultivate hope within societies but the lack of any significant substance and the absence of a trust worthy scientific method limit very substantially the range of any idea they propose. Read as an essay, the Cluetrain Manifesto can be considered as an acceptable thesis for the contemporary doxa. As a matter of fact, according to Lypovetsky (1993), the absence of common values and individualism create a need for hope. However, many scholars have the same intellectual posture, which is, I believe, a naïve technological utopia if regarded through the lens of scientific research.