Traces Echoing in Eternity


“Markets are conversations”. I still, even to this day, remember the first time I read that sentence. It was exactly two decades ago when my hands held the copy of “The Cluetrain Manifesto”. The subtitle of the book read “The End of Business as Usual”, while the previously cited sentence was the first among the 95 theses contained therein.

To begin, let me share a handful of selected citations from the Manifesto:

  • Markets consist of human beings, not demographic sectors.
  • The Internet is enabling conversations among human beings that were simply not possible in the era of mass media.
  • These networked conversations are enabling powerful new forms of social organization and knowledge exchange to emerge.
  • As a result, markets are getting smarter, more informed, more organized. Participation in a networked market changes people fundamentally.
  • There are no secrets. The networked market knows more than companies do about their own products. And whether the news is good or bad, they tell everyone.
  • Companies that assume online markets are the same markets that used to watch their ads on television are kidding themselves.
  • Companies can now communicate with their markets directly. If they blow it, it could be their last chance.
  • Companies need to come down from their Ivory Towers and talk to the people with whom they hope to create relationships.
  • Paranoia kills conversation. That’s its point. But lack of open conversation kills companies.
  • Maybe you’re impressing your investors. Maybe you’re impressing Wall Street. You’re not impressing us.
  • We like this new marketplace much better. In fact, we are creating it.
  • We are immune to advertising. Just forget it.
  • Don’t worry, you can still make money. That is, as long as it’s not the only thing on your mind.
  • We have better things to do than worry about whether you’ll change in time to get our business. Business is only a part of our lives. It seems to be all of yours. Think about it: who needs whom?
  • We are waking up and linking to each other. We are watching. But we are not waiting.

Written with a whiff of the Lutheran rebellious spirit, akin to the proclamation of the newly anointed plebs hanging from the hermetically sealed doors of the Towers of the Corporate Capital, the symbolic 95 theses conclude with an invitation to the hiding elite:

“You have two choices. You can continue to lock yourself behind facile corporate words and happytalk brochures. Or you can join the conversation.”

The reason why I still vividly remember holding the book for the very first time – a book that instantly became an intimate business Bible of mine – has a lot to do with my direct marketing roots that glitzy world of advertising at that time labelled as being “BTL” – below the line. The demarcation meant that if you are below, you are irrelevant. But that is not where the line is actually drawn. Let me be very precise, my work revolved around direct response TV i.e. TV shopping that even in the world of direct marketing was considered to be “below the line”, having in mind that catalogues and direct mail ruled the category. That meant that for the fancy madmen of advertising, direct response TV was the (be)lowest of the (be)lows. Reading the manifesto, however, boosted my self-confidence as I recognized many details in those lines that were crucial for our success at the time. Despite the fact that we did not engage in internet sales, we had a direct communication with the consumers and we were creating a community of sorts.

Let me underline this once again: this was twenty years ago! Google was a nascent venture, with barely a year under its belt, while Mark Zuckerberg was a 15-year old kid still half-a-decade away from coming up with the idea of starting an online university-related theme book with few guys from his dorm.

It was actually Facebook and Mark Zuckerberg that brought back the memories of the Cluetrain Manifesto, forcing me to dig through the library shelf and revisit the 95 theses. Namely, just a few days ago I read a New York Times Opinion by Chris Hughes, a guy who sat alongside Mark Zuckerberg in the dorm fifteen years ago, co-founding Facebook. The op-ed by Hughes strongly advocates for breaking the Facebook corporation into smaller, independent companies and thereby stop or at least limit the negative effects of its operations in the current form. One of many citations from the opinion states: “Mark Zuckerberg is a good guy. But the company I helped him build is a threat to our economy and democracy.”

This op-ed is just one of many events that have placed a spotlight on questionable ethics of Facebook business practices as well as the operation of other global tech communication platforms. The resale of personal data of Facebook users in the Cambridge Analytica affair saw Zuckerberg in a Congressional hearing, instigating a chain of affairs both big and small that are centered around the abuse of trust of the social media platform users. As it turns out, Facebook is not the only black sheep in the herd. Other global tech communication platforms have utilized similar methods in obtaining data – and the stuff that surfaced in the news is just the tip of the iceberg. Funny enough, each and every one of the companies pained by the shortcomings of their methods has claimed that their actions were in compliance with the rules and that they will try to better protect the privacy of their users and amend the terms and conditions in the future accordingly.

The only thing is, no one is biting the bullet this time around. Minor cosmetic changes to the terms and conditions while not substantially altering the existing business model, means that it still operates on selling increased quantities of gathered, analyzed and re-packed data left behind in the form of digital traces of the platform users.

Two decades ago, Rick Levine, Christopher Locke, Doc Searls and David Weinberger, authors of The Cluetrain Manifesto, have recognized the telltale signs of the emerging internet technology as giving people a special, new power to directly and authentically communicate with one another, exercising their rights and achieving a greater influence over the world and its surroundings – eventually improving conditions for everyone. Today, their belief seems almost naive.

Some others have read the clues and telltale signs and recognized the opportunity to truly create a brave, new world – but the one where the individualism is stifled and substituted with a false appearance of authenticity, created in one of many virtual realities where capital reigns freely, establishing a new path of global dominance.

The authors of the Manifesto have become aware of this as well. In the foreword to the jubilee special edition of the publication, a decade after the initial book was printed, David Weinberger notes: “So, were we right in our implicit prediction that business as usual was about to end? Not exactly. Huge corporations still stalk the earth. We still report to hierarchical structures that cut us paychecks in exchange for obedience… In fact, the Web has given marketeers opportunities to betray us in more inventive ways”.

The foregoing quote was written exactly ten years ago! And in the time since, we have witnessed the additional decade of the information technology rapid development and business models built around it.

Good night and sweet dreams.

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