sxsw.jpgSpeaking today at South by Southwest Interactive was a panel on the Cluetrain Manifesto. Published in 1999, is a list of 95 points regarding companies, consumers, and the relationship between the two, asking companies to wake up and deal with their customers on a human level rather than treat them as potential sources of profit. The panel, moderated by Henry Copeland (founder of BlogAds, was a discussion of Cluetopia and whether society is getting there.

One of the original writers of Cluetrain, Doc Searls, spoke on the origin of the manifesto. In the midst of the Dotcom madness in 1998, the Cluetrain founders, as they would become known, were discussing the disconnect between what the internet actually was versus what was receiving funding and how the net was playing out in the press, as if it could be an extension of the shopping malls in the real world. The founders would use their theories on marketing in order to filter out clients whose philosophies didn’t mesh with their own; if the clients did not agree with the concept of marketing as a conversation, the founders would decline to work with them. The discussion turned into the 95 theses of the Cluetrain Manifesto, which was kicked off by Chris Locke’s statement from the everyday citizen’s point of view, “We are not seats or eyeballs or end users or consumers. We are human beings – and our reach exceeds your grasp. Deal with it.”

Shortly after the Cluetrain Manifesto was posted on the internet, it had received coverage in the Wall Street Journal and the authors had gotten a book offer. Their book, The Cluetrain Manifesto was published in January of 2000, just before the Dotcom crash. Although many of the theses in the Manifesto predated and foresaw major internet events, the theories didn’t seem to be that profound to the authors while writing them.

Backlash ensued. The Cluetrain authors were accused to be siding with the markets against marketing. Searls said, “Consumers are seen as gullets who gulp products and crap cash,” and humanizing those consumers was a difficult viewpoint for many large corporations. However, Searls says for companies to become successful they need to develop a relationship with their consumers – the next stage beyond conversation.

Heather Armstrong, who writes the weblog Dooce, described a little more about the gulf between consumers and producers. Her weblog is enormously popular and receives a high amount of traffic. Recently she purchased a Nikon camera, after describing her camera research in her blog, and posts pictures almost daily. Her web page has a small blurb on the masthead saying, “I take photos every day with a Nikon D70.” Many of her readers have written her and said that they, too, purchased the same model camera based on Heather’s research and blog entries. The power she has over her readership is a little scary to her, that they would take her word for their purchasing decisions. However, she’s never heard from Nikon about possible sponsorship even though she’s personally responsible for the sale of many of their cameras.

Brian Clark, known to the ARG world as founder of GMD Studios, described his disenchantment with the web being seen as a human/machine interaction. He thought that it should be more about human/human interactions. The Cluetrain Manifesto was his litmus test for ad agencies. He would send it to agencies who contacted him for work to see if their viewpoints were compatible.

Clark says that many companies are scared of consumers. Individuals these days have a large voice on the internet that they might not have had otherwise, and the power of bloggers, for example, upsets companies, who might be negatively reviewed in a blog and see their sales drop as a result. The film industry tends to have the same kind of fear – “Just because they have a camera doesn’t mean they can make films” is a frequent refrain. Consequently, the work he does at GMD tends to scare the agencies, but when done right it promotes the sense of discovery. The audience has the opportunity to feel they were empowered to discover something rather than have it spoon-fed to them, which is a more influential experience.

Following are some of the highlights from the panel’s question and answer portion:

Q: Who are cluetrain companies?
A: Searls: Dresdner Kleinwort Wasserstein, who has implemented the Cluetrain philosophy and open source, gives their employees leeway, and has an enlightened leader. Also Sun and Microsoft who actively encourage their employees to blog.
Clark: Those companies who collaborate with others. Ad agencies are letting go of the need for control and are sharing their ideas with the teams and the specialists who can make things happen. This is an interesting trend.
Armstrong: When Best Buy goes out of business, Cluetrain will be accomplished.

Q: What’s going to happen in the next seven years?
A: Clark: Appropriation of the living room and television into a networked environment; gaming as a basic human train that goes along with conversation. As you apply gaming to large groups of people they do things that sociologists say they shouldn’t, like working together without a leader. There will be more peer-to-peer interactivity rather than broadcaster-to-peer.
Searls: A film-making explosion with a trend towards independence, completing the enlightenment which was interrupted by the industrial revolution.
Armstrong: Stay-at-home-moms are home alone and lonely; they’re currently in the same position that she is in: recreating the around-the-campfire communities that human beings used to enjoy.