Sellin’ something

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I’ve been wanting to write about the Cluetrain Manifesto for a while now but haven’t really managed to organize my thoughts yet. I’d like to share a couple of observations here and will probably return to it in later posts.

I won’t try to summarize the content on this blog; if you haven’t read it, the original Web “manifesto” and 95 (!) “theses” are here along with a link to the full text of the book, and the Wikipedia article gives a good overview.

Kalle Lasn of Adbusters magazine may have been the first to identify advertising as a form of pollution, back when the World Wide Web was still just a gleam in Tim Berners-Lee’s eye. But Lasn has little to say about alternatives to the conventional corporate model, and it took Levine, Locke, Searls and Weinberger to suggest that companies may be able to thrive by actively pursuing authentic “networked conversations” among and between their employees and customers.

It would be easy to dismiss Cluetrain as dot-com era hyperbole. After all, traditional top-down marketing, advertising and PR don’t show any signs of going away, and most of the big corporations that use them seem to be doing fine. Still, the insight that “there is no market for messages” remains valid, and the rise of blogging and “social media” have made the Internet more conversational than ever. Could these technologies really be opening a space where businesses based on genuine human-to-human communication have a chance to compete with the old mass-market monsters?

And is the effectiveness of marketing really all that’s at stake here? Even the original Cluetrain authors seem to have missed some of the deeper questions their work raises. The dirty little secret of, well, of modern capitalism is that, for generations now, the consumer goods industries have been churning out an ever-growing volume of products that no one really wants, along with increasingly intrusive advertising to generate demand for it all. Science fiction author Frederik Pohl satirized the situation in his 1983 novel Midas World, in which the masses of ordinary people are forced to live in extravagant luxury so that a tiny elite of super-rich can live simply. At some point we have to ask ourselves what it is we’re really trying to achieve.

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