The Cluetrain Manifesto started out as the website http://www.cluetrain.com/. Four men (Rick Levine, Christopher Locke, Doc Searls, David Weinberger), who only knew each other in the third degree, ended up having a conversation one day in 1999 about why the media coverage was all wrong about the internet and why business in general didn't get what it is all about. At one point one of them quoted an acquaintance from a big company that was in trouble: "The cluetrain stopped here four times a day for ten years and no one ever took delivery." The website went live in March 1999 and started a discussion about the relation between business and its customers via the internet.
The manifesto consists of 95 theses put forward as a call to action for all businesses to become a part of the networked world. The similarity with Martin Luther's 95 Theses on the Power of Indulgences is obvious. In 1517 Luther nailed his manifesto to the door of the Church of Wittenberg in reaction against what he perceived to be wrong with the Catholic Church at the time, unwillingly starting the protestant revolt. In the same spirit, the authors wanted to express their thoughts on what was/is wrong with business-as-usual.
The essential idea behind the website, and later the book (online and in print), is that markets are conversations. Back in the day when the 'market' was actually a physical place where you went to, people were discussing wares and news. The items for sale were a product of someone's labor and/or craftsmanship. This all changed with the advent of the Industrial Revolution. Labor became compartmentalized and a new elite came to the forefront. Mass production gave rise to mass markets and eventually to mass marketing. Companies evolved into monolithic entities defending their secrets like a fort. The result of all of this, is that 'business' became psychologically separated from 'people'. Markets are divided into demographic targets on which common denominator advertising is unleashed. This has worked well in an environment where the media outlets can be controlled, i.e. newspapers, magazines, TV ads. And then came the internet. People are getting more and more connected over the boundaries of the physical world. If a marketing campaign tells you that the product in question is the best thing that has happened to mankind since the invention of speech, you will go on the internet to find out how much of the marketing BS is really true. The point that the authors are trying to make, is that businesses should talk to people again, admit that they make mistakes sometimes and then fix'em. If you let your employees get connected, amongst themselves and with the rest of the world, their overall knowledge will increase and thus that of the company itself. The internet is not TV with a pay button. Be honest. Break down the walls of Fort Business.
The message that Cluetrain brings, sounds very appealing. They have a valid point. A lot of companies still use websites that look very good, but hide what you're actually looking for. If the answer to a question cannot be found in a FAQ, try to find another way of contacting anyone (although admittedly, American websites are usually more filled up with flashy BS than European ones). When the company itself fails to deliver information you will go online and find it for yourself. The big divide here is a question of philosophy, which we can also find in the open source vs. proprietary software discussions. The first group basically believes in the power of people and propagates a positive view of humankind, while the latter sees customers as a necessary evil, made up mostly of thieves and freeriders. The record industry is losing money because of illegal downloads, but at the same time myspace is creating new celebrities. A company that has understood the power of a community is Ninja Tune Records. They have an active forum, filled with music lovers and avid followers of the label. People cry that downloading is killing music. It's not. It's killing record companies. Just like new energy sources have killed the coal industry in Belgium. Life changes. If you want to stay with the program, do what successful companies have done. Change your business model and use what the world offers you.
Since the publication of the manifesto a lot has changed, and other things have remained the same. Online advertising still looks very much like typical mass media advertising. It's a bit different with games, since it is good place for product placement. On the other hand, within some businesses, the problem of connecting people within a company has been alleviated somewhat through a proper ICT alignment and the use of knowledge management systems like really useful intranets and groupware. Still, a great deal of work needs to be done and, more importantly, mentalities have to change. No doubt this will happen over time. Today, technology changes very fast and the way we are living with it. This however is only physical. Mentally, people change a lot slower. The internet as we know it, only exists for about 15 years. Historically speaking it's still a baby. We are experiencing a revolution. Not of the kill-the-king-long-live-the-new-leader variety, but a revolution nonetheless: the fourth information revolution (not to be mistaken with the concept that states we're evolving from industrial to more service jobs). The first one was the invention of speech, the second writing and the third book printing. During the previous one, the European continent (with the invention of the mechanical press by Gutenberg during the 15th century; the Chinese were well before us) was characterized not only by a more rapid way of dispersing ideas, but also by better roads and safer means, thus quicker, of travel. The same thing has been happening since the fifties of the previous century: holidays for the working class, affordable cars, TV, telephones, computer science, the internet and cheap airplane tickets. And the end is not near for some time to come. Conversely, all of this is mainly true for the Western world. The poorer countries (as well as digital illiterates in general) will need to find a way to bridge the digital divide. Non-democratic countries have been able to censor and monitor the digital world. Utopia is not around the corner. But, then again, it never was.
Essentially, the manifesto has a positive view on the world and how it's changing. The object was to get people to think about our changing world. As I said, mentalities need to change and that takes time, but also awareness. Right now, most people who are working are 'digital immigrants'. We have learned how to work with computers at a later age, while 'digital natives' are growing up with it. There is no telling how they will affect the rules of business.