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Manifestly Clueless

The Cluetrain Manifesto: The End of Business as Usual
March 1, 2000

The clue train stopped there four times a day
for ten years and they never took delivery.
-Veteran of a firm now free-falling from the Fortune 500

The Cluetrain Manifesto is not a business book, although that is probably where puzzled booksellers will shelve it. The original Manifesto surfaced in 1999 as a Web site dedicated to the proposition that “markets are conversations.” In 95 bluntly worded theses (a nod to Martin Luther), the site ridicules conventional wisdom about marketing and corporate management. “Companies that speak in the language of the pitch, the dog-and-pony show, are no longer speaking to anyone,” the Manifesto proclaims. “Most marketing programs are based on fear that the market might see what’s really going on inside the company.” Outmoded command-and-control management, the argument says, derives from “an overall culture of paranoia.” Only by recognizing that information cannot be controlled, that the Web is a tool for community-building rather than broadcasting or advertising, and that customers want to be spoken to in a human voice can companies hope to stay relevant in the new economy, the Manifesto warns.

Bold and irreverent to the point of being smart-alecky, the Manifesto makes a fun, thought-provoking read. It helped me to recognize that, in my day job as the editor of an industry Web site,my role is not just to serve up prepared content but also to fuel conversation with and between readers. I also felt compelled to examine my own writing style for corporatespeak and ivory-towerism. Thousands of other Netizens have become signatories, and the manifesto’s authors-a quartet of journalists and marketing consultants-have become gurus of the Web economy.

The four deserve kudos for highlighting how the Internet is changing the balance of knowledge and power in the marketplace, and how intranets are doing the same within the workplace. Their effort to save corporations from their own fear of these facts is also valiant. The truth is, though, that the Manifesto’s 95 theses boil down to a handful of ideas; the rest is attitude.And while this gonzo voice produces a frisson in limited doses, it becomes suffocatingly smug at book length. Isn’t this what the Manifesto warns companies against?

My advice: Skip the book. Go look at the Cluetrain Web site (www.cluetrain.com), read the theses twice, then come back in a week or two and read them again. Then, to keep yourself from taking it all too seriously, go see the wickedly funny parody site,www.gluetrain.com. Thesis No. 17: “If you use lots of really big words like ‘metaphysical,’ you can stretch four or five ideas into 95 theses.”

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Illustration by Rose Wong

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