SM Pioneers: David Weinberger

April 4, 2011 · 2 comments in Pioneers

Getting hit by the Cluetrain

[Cluetrain Manifesto co-authors David Weinberger [l], Doc Searls and Chris Locke. 202 photo by Phil Lindley]

I was sitting in business class somewhere over the United States in June 2001 when I got hit by the Cluetrain.

At roughly about the same time Rob Key a successful senior executive at Young & Rubicon, read the book, stepped out of a prestigious and lucrative position and founded Converseon, the first-ever social media agency. Jeremy Geelan was a traditional publisher when he read Cluetrain and he says it began his journey from paper publishing to a leading interactive publisher and producer on cloud computing. Eric Norlin was a Denver stockbroker, who would end up being a founder of the Defrag Conference and it’s principal blogger.

There turned out to be a whole lot of people all over the world that got hit by the Cluetrain Manifesto in a short period of time. We were living perfectly successful lives. Many of us connected to internet marketing. Then we read this book and our perspective got turned upside down and we knew we had to change something.

When I read the book on a flight from San Francisco to New York City, I was the head of a small PR firm that I had founded in 1986. We had struggled until the late 90s, when I refocused the agency to specialize exclusively on internet startups– “dotcoms” as they were then called.

Business suddenly flourished, which explains my business-class seat. By my side was a client who footed the bill for the flight, the limo that would greet us at JFK and the swanky midTown hotel room that awaited me.

This client’s company had never made a dime. As it turned out, it never would. The only money that ever came in was from venture capitalists who had ponied up over $20 million on the vision of the 27-year-old CEO who sat next to me.

I didn’t think much of this client. I had little faith in his product or his view of potential customers, whom he referred to as “eyeballs.” I had pitched the account talking about building relationships with customers through editors and industry analysts.

But it turned out that what he really wanted was “buzz,” the same as almost every other dotcom company. No one seemed concerned that buzz is the last thing you hear before you get stung.

Cluetrain is comprised of 95 theses–the same number that Martin Luther posted on a German church door in 1517, leading to the Protestant Reformation. It used the word “Manifesto,” which simply means a public statement of intentions, but up until Cluetrain was a word most often referencing the Communist Manifesto by Karl Mark who also stirred up a bit of a revolution.

The book’s subtitle declared “the end of business as usual.” It was among the best-written modern books I had ever touched. If you have not read the book, I urge you to do so. If you are too lazy or busy to read an entire book, skip to Chapter 4, written by Doc Searls and David Weinberger If you do not have an attention span that lets you cover more than a tweet, then this summary gives you the book’s essence:

“Markets are conversations.”

That may seem self-evident, a term that David Weinberger often uses, but in 1998, when the project began, marketing wasn’t conversational. It was broadcasting. It was an attempt of corporate committees to put messages in the minds of the masses.

In addition to Searls and Weinberger, there were two other authors Rick Levine and Christopher Locke. The project began as a website in 1998. David Miller a literary agent suggested it be turned into a book. The four only got together face-to-face twice in the planning and writing of the book. They divided the work by topic, with no more than two authors working on any of the 95 theses. They would not all be in the same place at the same time until a 10th anniversary celebration at the 2010 Defrag Conference.

In my book-in-progress, Social Media Pioneers, I treat Cluetrain Manifesto as the watershed moment. It is not an accident that Getting hit by the Cluetrain is my Chapter 4. Everything that happened before Cluetrain in my view were a series of disconnected steps that fell together to build social media’s foundation. Cluetrain was the accelerant. It fomented a revolution.

I interviewed David Weinberger and Doc Searls for this book, asking them identical questions by email. The following my Q&A with David. Tomorrow I’ll post Doc’s answers to the same questions.


How did the four Cluetrain authors first get together? Whose idea was it to write the book? What was the process?

Chris Locke had introduced Doc and me earlier because we were working on similar issues. The three of us started having a back-and-forth email and phone about how miserably the media were covering the Internet.

It was all about the Net as a business opportunity. We each had backgrounds on the business side of the Net, so we understood the opportunity, but we also knew that you couldn’t explain the pull and power of the Net simply by talking about its inhabitants as customers.

Nor, by the way, could you explain the Net by thinking of it as an information resource – the “information highway” as it used to be called. Something more important was happening. It was clear to us that people were flocking to the Net, not to do catalog shopping or become researchers, but because we wanted to connect with one another. Other media belonged to the content providers and access providers. This new medium was ours.

At some point, Chris brought in Rick. Then, one day Chris sent around a draft of the 95 theses, incorporating what had become our themes. We iterated on the draft, added some other pieces, and posted the site in April 1999.

We thought we were basically articulating what people on the Web already knew. Apparently we hit a nerve because the site took off.

A few days after the site went up, we heard from David Miller, a Boston literary agent who said that he thought the site could become a book. He negotiated a book deal.

We wrote it starting in June, when we had our first in-person meeting — a weekend at Rick’s gorgeous house, with his gorgeous family, in Boulder. We turned in the manuscript at the end of August 1999. Perseus Books broke all the rules of print publishing by getting it into bookstores a few months later.

We were able to write the book quickly in large part because we each either wrote our own sections, or collaborated with one other person. Chris had set the tone with the original draft of the Manifesto. In August , we got together at Rick’s again and went through the chapters, mainly looking to get our language a bit more uniform. Also, we critiqued each other’s work. We were not all in the same room again until a few months ago at the Defrag conference.

So, we wrote the whole thing in a couple of months. But what makes this more surprising is that we at first thought that we could just pull together bits we’d already written. It turned out that they didn’t go together well. So, with David Miller’s help, we divided the topic into chapters, which were easy to divvy up. Once we had that, we were able to go off and write our respective chapters.


In 1998, when you were writing Cluetrain, there was internet commerce and etailing; forums and usenet, but most of the tools we consider to be part of today’s social media did not yet exist. Yet Cluetrain seems to be prescient of them. Did you have any sense or vision of what would unfold over the next decade?

To predict blogging or Twitter (or whatever) would be the same as inventing them. What makes these inventions work is getting the details right. For example, for years before Cluetrain, I’d been in document management and doc creation biz, and had been writing about the need to heal the rift between desktop and Web. Bloggers did that to some degree–although it’s a problem we still haven’t solved completely.

But I didn’t predict blogging, because that would have meant figuring out the implementation that would work technically and, more important, socially.

So, I’d say that we had a sense of what would unfold only to the extent that we had an idea about what the value of the Net is. Beyond that, nope.

We were convinced that the primary value of the Net is that it enables us to find others, connect with them, and talk about what we care about in our own voice.  We were thinking about this primarily in contrast to the broadcast regime.

It’s hard to remember how much the Net felt like an act of rebellion against broadcast now that broadcast is trying to keep up with the Net. So, if we wanted to predict — and I believe the book itself has some argument against predictions –it would have been that there’d be continuing successful innovation in social tools.


The Cluetrain subtitle is “The end of businesses as usual?” Is it?  How is business different in 2011 from 1998?

So-SO different. The subtitle was hyperbolic, which is totally acceptable for a subtitle. But business has been transformed for sure.

Customers routinely seek out other customers before making a significant purpose. Leaders lead differently because they now sound like jerks when they sound like traditional CEOs. Meetings are more informal and more focused now that so much more of the work can be done via email and other tools. Businesses increasingly are willing to acknowledge that they’re made of fallible humans.  Strategies are now often devised in public, or in semi-public.

Of course, not everything has changed. Much remains to be done. And there are structures that are enshrined in law, e.g., the accountability requirements that assume hierarchical organization. But, I think business is accomplished in significantly.


At the heart of Cluetrain was the great image of axe-wielding message-mongers, marketers who were going to get images into people’s brains whether people liked it or not. How has social media impacted the message-mongers? Do you think they have simply adapted their old tricks to new channels and are continuing to shovel out the same sort of crap as always?

Sure. Not only is this behavior hard to unlearn, the Net actually makes it easier to pursue many of the old, obnoxious behaviors. The behavior is hard to unlearn because the change has been fundamental: Businesses still assume that their interests and the interests of their markets are different. Businesses are thus in a struggle to bend their markets’ will. But the Net is constructed out of the alignment of interests: I link to your site because of a perceived convergence of interest, and I friend you for the same reason.

Disagreement can still be an alignment of interests: We both care about Johnny Depp or global warming, although we have different opinions. Businesses generally have not yet figured out how to enter into this web of interests without disrupting it.


Cluetrain’s “self-evident truth” was that markets are conversations. This, to me, is exactly what has happened. Today, millions of people engage in billions of conversations online everyday. Geography has become less relevant. Information is shared, not cloistered. So my question is quite simple: How has the web-based marketplace changed the world?

The Web has taught its users that we can own our medium; that medium can be about us and for us; that what we say and build together is more interesting, true, and valuable than what media owned by others can; that there is no single voice of truth or value; that difference is more interesting and important than pared-down similarity; that the world is far more interesting than the media ever let on; that curiosity is a value in itself, not merely an itch to be suppressed; that we can build things together for free far more grand than anyone every imagined.

Those are world-changing ideas that the Web is teaching us. How has it changed the world? Few big changes happen for any single reason.

Looking back over the last decade, what about social media has surprised, delighted and disappointed you?

Everything has surprised and delighted me.

The capture of the social network by a single proprietary entity is deeply, deeply disturbing.


How do you hope the world will remember Cluetrain Manifesto

I have no such hopes.


What is your vision for the next 5, 10 or 50 years related to social media?

I have no predictions other than:

The Web knows about the connection among pages, but it knows nothing about the connection among people. Social media do. That is a hugely important part of the infrastructure. It’s inconceivable to me that social media could become less important over time. How that importance manifests itself is up to us.



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SM Pioneers: David Weinberger — Global Neighbourhoods | World Media Information
April 4, 2011 at 1:28 pm
Joho the Blog » Shel Israel’s Cluetrain interviews
April 7, 2011 at 5:09 am

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