At the turn of the last century, manifestos were all the rage any self-respecting artist or politician simply had to have one. Now, in the age of the Internet, every third business book is an overheated screed trumpeting the way forward for the new economy. But don't be fooled by the cover of The Cluetrain Manifesto: This is actually a wise book.
Like many manifestos, Cluetrain primarily concerns itself with the far-reaching effects of the Web. In fact, the book itself is the offspring of a Web site (www.cluetrain.org) set up by its authors. On the site, the authors invite discussion and have posted what they call their 95 Theses. These begin with the assertion that "markets are conversations." They go on to discuss how the Web is changing the way we converse.
The other 94 tenets can be can be boiled down (much more briefly) to three observations. First, the Web makes it easier for individuals, whether customers or employees, to talk to one another. Next, individuals have distinct voices, and are interested in other individuals with distinct voices. Last, companies are not individuals but legal fabrications, and no amount of marketing or PR can give them that distinct voice.
So what's a faceless, voiceless company to do? Get out of the way. Get involved with the conversations out on the Web, and invite them in. Encourage employees to talk with each other by letting them set up intranets (but don't impose these on them). Then open up those intranets and let customers in on everything except your most precious company secrets which they'd probably find out anyway.
And that's about it. Despite its status as a self-proclaimed call-to-arms, Cluetrain has only one "action item": Let people be themselves. In fact, the authors spend most of the book simply stating and restating why this is obviously and inevitably the only thing you can do. They're not agitating revolt among their readers, but warning them. Get with the program or else. The Web will go on without you.<>This overconfidence is the book's biggest flaw. After all, what if the Cluetrain engineers are wrong about the fate of the Web, and old-line, closed-off companies manage to hijack the medium for their own vile ends? They may then wish they'd been a little less sure of themselves.
But Cluetrain shares the virtues it ascribes to the Web. The four authors take turns at the helm, which produces a pleasant jumble of opinions. They contradict each other. And any book written about the Web, in the spirit of it, will seem at least a little ambivalent, because the Web is manifesto-proof. It can't be forced to be one thing or another. It is what it is. That is: A lot of different things.
Those who like it, and want to keep it that way, will find fellow travelers here.
(Perseus Books; 190 pp.; 0-58115-033-4; $23)