Talking to Doc Searls about Cluetrain

I recently had the opportunity to interview Doc Searls and David Weinberger about their five-year-old book, The Cluetrain Manifesto. (For the record, I did try to contact Chris Locke too, but got no reply. And as Searls points out below, Rick Levine seems to have disappeared.)

As often happens when I interview people for articles, the interview produces far too much material for me to use. Reluctantly, I have to chop the interviewee's words down to something that barely scratches the surface of what they said.

Doc Searls was particularly wordsome, and our email interview lasted several days as we batted comments back and forth. Here's the full text of our conversation.

OK; I suppose the obvious place to start is: has the Cluetrain caught on in the way you hoped?

Yes, because the way we hoped it would catch on was in the manner of wildfire. Cluetrain, as we saw it, was a match applied to dry conversational tinder. The fire caught, and hasn’t stopped spreading.

Some background there.

I remember one conversation with Chris Locke in which we were doing our usual complaining about how little the mainstream press understood what was really happening with the Net, and how much money VCs were wasting on start-ups operating on wrong assumptions about the Net (like, that it would be a good place to put up shopping malls, or that Net users were nothing more than “eyeballs” that could be “captured” like the ones addicted to TV). At some point I shared with Chris my informal theory of marketing, which went like this:

  1. Markets are conversations; and
  2. Conversations are fire. Therefore,
  3. Marketing is arson.

Chris said, “Why don’t we test the theory?” What we did with Cluetrain, basically, was set some fires. In terms of that objective, it was a success, and it continues to succeed.

Are there enough corporations out there accepting its message, and adopting its principles?

First, I hate the whole concept of “messages.” One of the theses that failed to get into Cluetrain’s original 95 (not sure why - it doesn’t matter) was “There’s no demand for messages.” We did believe, however, that there is demand for conversation—for companies relating to customers, directly and in a human way.

I believe that has happened to a significant degree. Look at a company like Apple, which used to scrape off customers on resellers and other intermediaries. Now they have retail operations where they relate to customers directly. You can bring your broken Mac into a store, go to the “genius bar” in the back and get help from a human being. Meanwhile, the company’s engineers now work with an operating system that has a highly conversational open source community as its base. This is another change that’s highly clueful.

Second, what companies like Apple have done is nothing more than adapt to a networked marketplace. What we said in Cluetrain, boiled down, was “networked markets get smarter faster than most companies.” (That line comes from Chris Locke, by the way.) And it is therefore wise for companies to relate to their networked markets. Lots of companies have done that, as a matter of survival in a networked world.

The original cover verbiage (replaced for good marketing reasons by a blurb from Tom Petzinger of the Wall Street Journal) said “Markets are conversations. Talk is cheap. Silence is fatal.” That was a statement about changed conditions in the world, brought about by the presence of the Internet in the world. To the degree companies have adapted and survived, they’ve gotten the “message,” even it wasn’t delivered directly by Cluetrain.

Third, levels of adaptation to the Net have varied widely, even within companies. I believe, for example, that Microsoft has always been more well-adapted to the networked marketplace than any other large software company; and that this put them at an advantage when the Net came along. There have always been real connections between customer support and engineering at Microsoft, and these connections have resulted in continual product improvements.

One top Microsoft executive back in 1996 even told me Word and Excel were full of features only one customer had asked for, and that the company’s willingness to listen had been taken to some kind of extreme. That same year Microsoft started a raft of unmoderated Usenet newsgroups, which I thought was an extremely clueful move. This was at a time when Microsoft’s competitors (such as Apple, and—more significantly for future legal reasons, Netscape) were systematically ignoring customers. It’s no wonder Microsoft kicked ass in the marketplace. That said, I also think Microsoft did a very clueless and hostile thing when it raised prices and tightened licensing restrictions a couple summers back. No customer ever asked for those things, and it hurt Microsoft’s relationships, especially with large corporate customers.

But back on the positive side, Microsoft now has something like 500 employees that are blogging regularly, which is a highly clueful state of affairs. In fact, if you want evidence of Cluetrain’s effects, check out Channel 9, which is where Microsoft’s Longhorn development team engages outsiders in all kinds of conversations. Look up “Cluetrain” there and see what they say about it. Pretty amazing.

Back on the negative side, I have to say there are very few large companies I can point to and say “That’s a really clueful company.” The only ones that come to mind, in fact, are two airlines: Southwest and JetBlue. As for smaller companies, there are many. Perhaps the most significant one in the current timeframe is MeetUp. That one company has done more to energize politics, and political conversation, than any other company in the world. It’s quite an achievment.

And Google, right? Google has clue coming out of its collective ears.

In some ways. Not in others. Google has no real competition, and that’s not good. It’s not the 800-pound Gorilla. It’s the fucking Himilayas. Or bigger. An enormous presence. They‘re very clueful for a land mass, but I worry that they’ve become infrastructure. It’s not good for any company to become infrastructure.

To put it another way: markets are conversations. Having told the (business) world this, do you feel you were listened to?

Yes. But I think more listening has taken place, surprisingly, in politics, than in business. The Howard Dean campaign, for example, was directly influenced by Cluetrain. So was the Wesley Clark campaign. Now some of the same people involved in both those campaigns are with John Kerry. I’m told by insiders that, in spite of the highly top-down nature of the Bush campaign, many Cluetrain principles are also applied there too.

You said: “I remember one conversation with Chris Locke in which we were doing our usual complaining about how little the mainstream press understood what was really happening with the Net, and how much money VCs were wasting on start-ups operating on wrong assumptions about the Net (like, that it would be a good place to put up shopping malls, or that Net users were nothing more than “eyeballs” that could be “captured” like the ones addicted to TV).” Has that attitude disappeared now, in your view? Or is there still a long way to go to get rid of it?

No and yes, but progress has been made. I doubt anybody will fund damn-near-anything again. Still, there doesn’t seem to be any shortage of money for building YASN: Yet Another Social Network. How many Friendsters do we need?

To me the big conflict is between metaphors: conduit vs. commons.

On the conduit side we have Hollywood and the entertainment industry, plus Congress and the FCC, seeing the Net (and broadcast too, for that matter) as a pipe or a tube. A plumbing system for the distribution of something called “content.” For many years I was a writer. When i wrote for magazines and newspapers, I wrote “stories” or “features” or “columns” or “essays.” Now I’m a “content provider.” Why is that?

John Perry Barlow says “I didn’t start hearing about ‘content’ until the container business felt threatened.” The container business is publishing, broadcasting, and the rest of the entertainment system. And that’s how they think of it, by the way. Entertainment. Even the evening news is two minutes of actual news mixed into fifteen minutes of advertising, plus sports, weather and promotions for network programs dressed up as news. Walter Cronkite must be spinning in his grave. (Wait a minute - he’s not dead, right?)

Anyway, it’s easy for these guys to draw a big circle around everything you can pump down a pipe and call it “content.” And, in fact, we think of business itself in shipping terms. We “load” goods into a “channel” where intermediaries in the “distribution” system “add value” as the goods “flow” to an “end user” or a “consumer.” Containerize speech as “content” that’s “Packaged” in a “program” for “transmission” through a “network” to “receivers” with “consumers” at the far end, and you can regulate the crap out of it. Stifle it all you want. It’s not speech, after all, right? It’s just “content.” It’s transport. Freight forwarding. Container cargo.

Screw the First Amendment and its “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press.” This isn’t about speech. It’s about anything in a container. And that’s why nobody stopped the House, terribly outraged that Janet Jackson’s boob flopped out for two seconds during Superbowl halftime, from passing the Broadcast Decency Enforcement Act on March 9 of this year, giving the FCC, at its whim, the right to fine broadcasters up to a half million dollars per violation who ” have uttered obscene, indecent, or profane material.” Notice the word “material.” Somehow that’s not “speech.” Also the word “utter.” Somehow that’s not speech either. Hey, the Founders didn’t write an Amendment protecting our right to “utter,” right?

On the commons side we have the way the Net is conceived by its founders, and by the technical community in general. The Net to them is a place (or, similarly, a “space“). You “build” there things called “sites” with “addresses.” When unfinished they are said to be “under construction.” If you get fancy, you “design” or “architect” the site. You say something is “on” the Net, not “in” it or “through” it. There is also a related publishing metaphor: you “write” or “author” a “page” that you “put up.” In either metaphorical case, you have a habitat for markets (which are places) and free speech.

Yes, there is also a conduit metaphor for the Net at a technical level. Everything gets packetized and transported, for example. You send and receive email. So there’s some overlap there.

Anyway, the defenders of speech and enterprise and freedom on the Net will have problems in fights with the Forces of Entertainment as long as the language of the latter prevail in the minds of lawmakers.

Is cluefulness something you learn? How do you learn it? (Short of reading your book, of course.) My point is: if we could plot cluefulness as a curve, it is likely to show a degree of growth. Not everyone with clue has read the manifesto; so, how does cluefulness spread?

Cluefulness is just another word for openness. For willingness to listen, to read widely, to be curious about other points of view. The simple fact is that the Net, even if we conceive it as nothing more than a big freight forwarding system, changes everything. Either you deal with that or you don’t.

Has the sociable web had anything to do with it?

Sure. It tends to be self-clueing

So how do we make more companies clueful?

In my experience, it’s not easy. In many cases not worth trying. At some point they either wake up or they don’t. Novell, for example, is finally waking up. IBM had wide-awake parts all along, but now they‘re prevailing. I think there are parts of HP that get it, though Carly Fiorina doesn’t, or she wouldn’t suck up to Hollywood and Microsoft’s DRM schemes.

You said: “Yes. But I think more listening has taken place, surprisingly, in politics, than in business.” Heh, not over here in the UK, more’s the pity. :)

I dunno. There are several MPs blogging, last I looked.

Again, it’s not uniform thing. There are pockets everywhere.

Why do you think there’s been this eruption of clueful campaigning?

It had to happen sooner or later.

Bear in mind that it can’t be any better than the candidates. Unfortunately, we didn’t have any truly good ones this time around for the presidency. None that combined electability (by TV’s thinking) and connectedness (by the Net’s). Howard Dean had some of the latter, but proved to be a fatally flawed candidate. Which is too bad, because he represented the most democratic (small d, not the party) appeal we may have ever seen in a candidate using the Net. In the U.S., at least.

How long’s it going to take before clue permeates further and deeper into the business mindset?

Forever. This is about process more than outcome.

What matters are the conditions created by the Net. Now we live in a networked world. Before we didn’t. Sorry, phones and faxes don’t count. The Net is truly something new and very different. Now we have networked markets. So adaptation is inevitable, but so is maladaptation and failure. The average life of a species is 2 million years. Yet there are times when nearly all species die off, or large numbers of them disappear. This may be one of them, in respect to companies.

Think of the Intrnet’s advent as a Chicxulub event, akin to the impact of an asteroid. Dinosaur companies will die. The lucky or resourceful ones, those advantaged with adaptive natures, will live, thrive and evolve as species which, like birds (evolved from dinosaurs) can take advantage of the new conditions.

After I told Doc that the article had been published and was available online, he wrote:

One minor possible correction. Cluetrain began for me with conversations with Chris; but Chris Locke was having conversations with David Weinberger in the same time frame. Chris brought the three of us together. Technically, Cluetrain started with those three musketeers. Levine came later. (And has also disappeared, pretty much, since then.)

I ought to thank Doc for generously granting me so much of his time. If you're interested, the article that resulted from this interview is The long conversation, published in The Guardian's Online section.

(2nd June 2004)