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chapter one

the following is the complete first chapter of

The Cluetrain Manifesto:
The End of Business as Usual

Copyright © 1999, 2001 Levine, Locke, Searls & Weinberger.
All rights reserved.


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NEXT: Chapter 2: The Longing
Polish translation

Internet Apocalypso
Christopher Locke

you set my desire...
I trip through your wires


Premature Burial

We die.

You will never hear those words spoken in a television ad. Yet this central fact of human existence colors our world and how we perceive ourselves within it.

"Life is too short," we say, and it is. Too short for office politics, for busywork and pointless paper chases, for jumping through hoops and covering our asses, for trying to please, to not offend, for constantly struggling to achieve some ever-receding definition of success. Too short as well for worrying whether we bought the right suit, the right breakfast cereal, the right laptop computer, the right brand of underarm deodorant.

Life is too short because we die. Alone with ourselves, we sometimes stop to wonder what's important, really. Our kids, our friends, our lovers, our losses? Things change and change is often painful. People get "downsized," move away, the old neighborhood isn't what it used to be. Children get sick, get better, get bored, get on our nerves. They grow up hearing news of a world more frightening than anything in ancient fairy tales. The wicked witch won't really push you into the oven, honey, but watch out for AK-47s at recess.

Amazingly, we learn to live with it. Human beings are incredibly resilient. We know it's all temporary, that we can't freeze the good times or hold back the bad. We roll with the punches, regroup, rebuild, pick up the pieces, take another shot. We come to understand that life is just like that. And this seemingly simple understanding is the seed of a profound wisdom.

It is also the source of a deep hunger that pervades modern life — a longing for something entirely different from the reality reinforced by everyday experience. We long for more connection between what we do for a living and what we genuinely care about, for work that's more than clock-watching drudgery. We long for release from anonymity, to be seen as who we feel ourselves to be rather than as the sum of abstract metrics and parameters. We long to be part of a world that makes sense rather than accept the accidental alienation imposed by market forces too large to grasp, to even contemplate.

And this longing is not mere wistful nostalgia, not just some unreconstructed adolescent dream. It is living evidence of heart, of what makes us most human.

But companies don't like us human. They leverage our longing for their own ends. If we feel inadequate, there's a product that will fill the hole, a bit of fetishistic magic that will make us complete. Perhaps a new car would do the trick. Maybe a trip to the Caribbean or that new CD or a nice shiny set of Ginsu steak knives. Anything, everything, just get more stuff. Our role is to consume.

Of course, the new car alone is not enough. It must be made to represent something larger. Much larger. The blonde draped over the hood looks so much better than the old lady bitching about the dishes. Surely she'd understand our secret needs. And if we showed up with her at the big golf game, wouldn't the guys be impressed! Yeah, gotta get one-a those babies. This isn't about sex, it's about power — the greatest bait there ever was to seduce the powerless.

Or take it one slice closer to the bone. Leverage care. For the cost of a jar of peanut butter, you can be a Great Mom, the kind every kid would love to have. You can look out on your happy kids playing in that perfect suburban backyard and breathe a little sigh of contentment that life's so good, with not a wicked witch in sight. Just like on television.

We die. And there's more than one way to get it over with. Advertising has some serving suggestions for your premature burial.

Testing, Testing...

But what's this got to do with the Internet? A lot.

The Net grew like a weed between the cracks in the monolithic steel-and-glass empire of traditional commerce. It was technically obscure, impenetrable, populated by geeks and wizards, loners, misfits. When I started using the Internet, nobody gave a damn about it outside of a few big universities and the military-industrial complex they served. In fact, if you were outside that favored circle, you couldn't even log on. The idea that the Internet would someday constitute the world's largest marketplace would have been laughable if anyone was entertaining such delusions back then. I began entertaining them publicly in 1992 and the laughter was long and loud.

The Net grew and prospered largely because it was ignored. It worked by different rules than the rules of business. Market penetration wasn't interesting because there was no market — unless it was a market for new ideas. The Net was built by people who said things like: What if we try this? Nope. What if we try that? Nope. What if we try this other thing? Well, hot damn! Look at that!

One of the hottest damns was the World Wide Web. It came out of efforts to create electronic footnotes — references between academic papers on high-energy physics that maybe a few dozen people in the entire world could actually understand. That's why now, when you turn on your TV, you see www.haveanotherbeer.com.

Well, OK, a few things did happen in between. One of those things was that the Internet attracted millions. Many millions. The interesting question to ask is why. In the early 1990s, there was nothing like the Internet we take for granted today. Back then, the Net was primitive, daunting, uninviting. So what did we come for? And the answer is: each other.

The Internet became a place where people could talk to other people without constraint. Without filters or censorship or official sanction — and perhaps most significantly, without advertising. Another, noncommercial culture began forming across this out-of-the-way collection of computer networks. Long before graphical user interfaces made the scene, the scene was populated by plain old boring ASCII: green phosphor text scrolling up screens at the glacial pace afforded by early modems. So where was the attraction in that?

The attraction was in speech, however mediated. In people talking, however slowly. And mostly, the attraction lay in the kinds of things they were saying. Never in history had so many had the chance to know what so many others were thinking on such a wide range of subjects. Slowly at first, a new kind of conversation was beginning to emerge, but it would achieve global reach with astonishing speed.

In the early days, the Internet was used almost exclusively for government-funded projects and the sort of communication that went along with such work. Here's the new program. It needs some work. There's a bug in the frimular module. Yawn.

But you know what they say about all work and no play. People began to play. Left to themselves, they always do. And the people building the Internet were pretty much left to themselves. They were creating the gameboard. No one else knew how the hell this thing worked, so no one could tell them what they could and couldn't do. They did whatever they liked. And one of the things they liked most was arguing.

Consider that these early denizens of the Net were, for the most part, young, brash, untrained in the intricate dance of corporate politics, and highly knowledgeable of their craft. In the prized and noble older sense of the term, they were hackers, and proud of it. Many, in their own assessment if not that of others, were net.gods — high priests of an arcane art very few even knew existed. When disagreements arose over serious matters — the correct use of quotation marks, say — they would join in battle like old Norse warriors:

"Jim, you are a complete idiot. Your code is so brain-damaged it won't even compile. Read a book, moron."

Today, we tend to think of "flaming" as a handful of people vociferously insulting each other online. A certain sense of finesse has largely been lost. In the olden days, a good flame war could go on for weeks or months, with hot invective flying around like rhetorical shrapnel. It was high art, high entertainment. Though tempers flared hot and professional bridges were sometimes irreparably burned, ultimately it was a game — a participatory sport in which the audience awarded points for felicitous disparagements, particularly well-worded putdowns, inspired squelches.

It was not a game, however, for the meek of heart. These engagements could be fierce. Even trying to separate the contestants could bring down a hail of sharp-tongued derision. Theories were floated and defended with extreme energy and enthusiasm, if not always with logical rigor. Opinions tended to run high on any given topic. Say you'd posted about your dog. And, look, you got a response! "Jim, you are a complete idiot. Your dog is so brain-damaged it won't even hunt..."

If you'd happened to see the first version of the comment to Jim, you might grin at the second. If not, your mileage might vary. But the point is not to extol flame wars, as amusing as some could be. Instead, it is to suggest a particular set of values that began to emerge in what linguists might call a well-bounded speech community. On the Net, you said what you meant and had better be ready to explain your position and how you'd arrived at it. Mouthing platitudes guaranteed that you would be challenged. Nothing was accepted at face value, or taken for granted. Everything was subject to question, revision, re-implementation, parody — whether it was an algorithm, a political philosophy or, God help you, an advertisement.

While the outcome of these debates did not invariably constitute wisdom for the ages, the process by which they took place was honing a razor-sharp sense of collective potential. The conversation was not only engaging, interesting, exciting — it was effective. Tools and techniques emerged with a speed that broke all precedents. As would soon become obvious, the Net was a powerful multiplier for intellectual capital.

Waiting for Joe Six-Pack

A few years ago, you could make an interesting distinction between people who thought there was something special about the Internet and those who saw it as no big deal. Now of course, everybody sees it as a big deal, mostly because of those weirdball IPOs and the overnight billionaires they've spawned. But I think the distinction is still valid. Most companies with Net-dot-dollar-signs in their eyes today are still missing the "something special" dimension.

Yahoo has already made it, financially speaking, but forms a good example nonetheless. Despite the funky hacker roots of the initial directory Yang and Filo built, Yahoo now describes itself as a "global media company," thus claiming a closer spiritual kinship with Disney and Murdoch than with the culture that originally put it on the map.

To this mindset, the Net is just an extension of preceding mass media, primarily television. The rhetoric it uses is freighted with the same crypto-religious marketing jargon that characterized broadcast: brand, market share, eyeballs, demographics. And guess what? It works. If nobody was getting rich off this stuff, you wouldn't hear about it.

It's the fast new companies that are reaping these monetary rewards. But guess what again. They're reaping them from an even faster market — one that, for the most part, has only discovered the Internet in the last year or so. The people who make up this new market naturally bring a lot of baggage from their previous experience of mass media. To someone who just got an AOL account last Christmas, I suppose a Web page looks like a v-e-r-y s-l-o-w TV show.

But this is where the something-special effect comes in. It is assumed in some quarters that if you missed the early days of Usenet and didn't use Lynx from a Unix command line, you missed the Magic of Internet Culture. I don't think so.

Sure those were very different days and there was a certain fervor — almost a fever — that was hard to mistake for sitcom fandom. But I think the Internet still has a radicalizing effect today, despite all the banner ads and promotional hype and you-may-already-be-a-winner sweepstakes.

The something special is what the Manifesto calls voice.

Imagine for a moment: millions of people sitting in their shuttered homes at night, bathed in that ghostly blue television aura. They're passive, yeah, but more than that: they're isolated from each other.

Now imagine another magic wire strung from house to house, hooking all these poor bastards up. They're still watching the same old crap. Then, during the touching love scene, some joker lobs an off-color aside — and everybody hears it. Whoa! What was that? People are rolling on the floor laughing. And it begins to happen so often, it gets abbreviated: ROTFL. The audience is suddenly connected to itself.

What was once The Show, the hypnotic focus and tee-vee advertising carrier wave, becomes in the context of the Internet a sort of reverse new-media McGuffin — an excuse to get together rather than an excuse not to. Think of Joel and the 'bots on Mystery Science Theater 3000. The point is not to watch the film, but to outdo each other making fun of it.

And for such radically realigned purposes, some bloated corporate Web site can serve as a target every bit as well as Godzilla, King of the Monsters. As the remake trailer put it: size does matter.

So here comes Joe Six-Pack onto AOL. What does he know about netliness? Nothing. Zilch. He has no cultural context whatsoever. But soon, very soon, what he hears is something he never heard in TV Land: people cracking up.

"That ain't no laugh track neither," Joe is thinking and goes looking for the source of this strange, new, rather seductive sound.

So here's a little story problem for ya, class. If the Internet has 50 million people on it, and they're not all as dumb as they look, but the corporations trying to make a fast buck off their asses are as dumb as they look, how long before Joe is laughing as hard as everyone else?

The correct answer of course: not long at all. And as soon as he starts laughing, he's not Joe Six-Pack anymore. He's no longer part of some passive couch-potato target demographic. Because the Net connects people to each other, and impassions and empowers through those connections, the media dream of the Web as another acquiescent mass-consumer market is a figment and a fantasy.

The Internet is inherently seditious. It undermines unthinking respect for centralized authority, whether that "authority" is the neatly homogenized voice of broadcast advertising or the smarmy rhetoric of the corporate annual report.

And Internet technology has also threaded its way deep into the heart of Corporate Empire, where once upon a time, lockstep loyalty to the chairman's latest attempt at insight was no further away than the mimeograph machine. One memo from Mr. Big and everyone believed (or so Mr. Big liked to think).

No more. The same kind of seditious deconstruction that's being practiced on the Web today, just for the hell of it, is also seeping onto the company intranet. How many satires are floating around there, one wonders: of the latest hyperinflated restructuring plan, of the over-sincere cultural-sensitivity training sessions Human Resources made mandatory last week, of all the gibberish that passes for "management" — or has passed up until now.

Step back a frame or two. Zoom out. Isn't that weird? Workers and markets are speaking the same language! And they're both speaking it in the same shoot-from-the-hip, unedited, devil-take-the-hindmost style.

This conversation may be irreverent of eternal verities, but it's not all jokes. Whether in the marketplace or at work, people do have genuine, serious concerns. And we have something else as well: knowledge. Not the sort of boring, abstract knowledge that "Knowledge Management" wants to manage. No. The real thing. We have knowledge of what we do and how we do it — our craft — and it drives our voices; it's what we most like to talk about.

But this whole gamut of conversation, from infinite jest to point-specific expertise: who needs it?

Companies need it. Without it they can't innovate, build consensus, or go to market. Markets need it. Without it they don't know what works and what doesn't; don't know why they should give a damn. Cultures need it. Without play and knowledge in equal measure, they begin to die. People get gloomy, anxious, and depressed. Eventually, the guns come out.

There are two new conversations going on today, both vibrant and exciting; both mediated by Internet technologies but having little to do with technology otherwise. Unfortunately, there's also a metaphorical firewall separating these conversations, and that wall is the traditional, conservative, fearful corporation.

So what is to be done? Easy: Burn down business-as-usual. Bulldoze it. Cordon off the area. Set up barricades. Cripple the tanks. Topple the statues of heroes too long dead into the street.

Sound familiar? You bet it does. And the message has been the same all along, from Paris in '68 to the Berlin Wall, from Warsaw to Tiananmen Square: Let the kids rock and roll!

So open the windows and turn up the volume. If the noise gets loud enough, maybe even CNN will cover.

From Ancient Markets to Global Networks

This may seem rabidly antibusiness. It's not. Business is just a word for buying and selling things. In one way or another, we all rely on this commerce, both to get the things we want or need, and to afford them. We are alternately the workers who create products and services, and the customers who purchase them. There is nothing inherently wrong with this setup. Except when it becomes all of life. Except when life becomes secondary and subordinate. At the beginning of the twenty-first century, business so dominates all other aspects of our existence that it's hard to imagine it was ever otherwise. But it was. Imagine it.


A few thousand years ago there was a marketplace. Never mind where. Traders returned from far seas with spices, silks, and precious, magical stones. Caravans arrived across burning deserts bringing dates and figs, snakes, parrots, monkeys, strange music, stranger tales. The marketplace was the heart of the city, the kernel, the hub, the omphalos. Like past and future, it stood at the crossroads. People woke early and went there for coffee and vegetables, eggs and wine, for pots and carpets, rings and necklaces, for toys and sweets, for love, for rope, for soap, for wagons and carts, for bleating goats and evil-tempered camels. They went there to look and listen and to marvel, to buy and be amused. But mostly they went to meet each other. And to talk.

In the market, language grew. Became bolder, more sophisticated. Leaped and sparked from mind to mind. Incited by curiosity and rapt attention, it took astounding risks that none had ever dared to contemplate, built whole civilizations from the ground up.

Markets are conversations. Trade routes pave the storylines. Across the millennia in between, the human voice is the music we have always listened for, and still best understand.

So what went wrong? From the perspective of corporations, many of which by the twentieth century had become bigger and far more powerful than ancient city-states, nothing went wrong. But things did change.

Commerce is a natural part of human life, but it has become increasingly unnatural over the intervening centuries, incrementally divorcing itself from the people on whom it most depends, whether workers or customers. While this change is in many ways understandable — huge factories took the place of village shops; the marketplace moved from the center of the town and came to depend on far-flung mercantile trade — the result has been to interpose a vast chasm between buyers and sellers.

By our own lifetimes, mass production and mass media had totally transformed this relationship, which came to be characterized by alienation and mystery. Exactly what relationship did producers and markets have to each other anymore? In attempting to answer this blind-man's-bluff question, market research became a billion-dollar industry.

Once an intrinsic part of the local community, commerce has evolved to become the primary force shaping the community of nations on a global scale. But because of its increasing divorce from the day-to-day concerns of real people, commerce has come to ignore the natural conversation that defines communities as human.

The slow pace of this historic change has made it seem unsurprising to many that people are now valued primarily for their capacity to consume, as targets for product pitches, as demographic abstractions. Few living in the so-called civilized world today can envision commerce as ever having been anything different. But much of the change happened in the century just passed.

Economies of Scale: Mo' Bigga Mo' Betta

The Internet is often seen as a unique phenomenon that only recently burst into the economic mainstream. But looking at the Net in strictly technological terms obscures its relationship to broader economic trends that were already well underway.

By the end of the nineteenth century, the United States was poised to become the prototypical mass market. It had vast natural resources, a fast-growing population, and a contiguous geography generally unbounded by tariff restrictions. Cheap iron coupled with a voracious appetite for industrial expansion enabled a railway system capable of cost-effectively delivering goods to nearly every part of a captive domestic market.

Given the high cost of entry into such enterprises, and without appreciable foreign competition, manufacturers cared little about product differentiation. Thus Henry Ford's attitude toward customer choice: "They can have any color they want as long as it's black." More than for his wit, Ford is remembered for designing the first high-volume automotive assembly lines. The more cars Ford could make, the lower the unit cost and the greater the margin of profit. These economies of scale led to enormous profits because they enabled selling a far cheaper product to a far wider market.

Ford was strongly influenced by Frederick Taylor and his theory of "scientific management." Taylor's time-and-motion metrics sought to bring regularity and predictability to bear on the increasingly detailed division of labor. Under such a regimen, previously holistic craft expertise rapidly degraded into the mindless execution of single repetitive tasks, with each worker performing only one operation in the overall process. Because of its effect on workers' knowledge, de-skilling is a term strongly associated with mass production. And as skill disappeared, so did the unique voice of the craftsman.

The organization was elegantly simple, if not terribly humane. Atop the management hierarchy resided near-omniscient knowledge of products and manufacturing methods. In the case of Ford, product design, process design, marketing strategy, and other critical functions were chiefly the province of one man, Henry. This knowledge was translated into work orders that were executed by an increasingly layered cadre of lieutenants who directed a large but largely unskilled workforce. This style of command-and-control management worked best for single product-lines with few parts and simple processes.

Economies of Scope: Would You Like Fries with That?

Mass production, mass marketing, and mass media have constituted the Holy Trinity of American business for at least a hundred years. The payoffs were so huge that the mindset became an addiction, a drug blinding its users to changes that began to erode the old axioms attaching to economies of scale.

These changes were gradual at first. Even early on, "economies of scope" began to be perceived. General Motors broke Ford's run on the Model-T — an impossibly long product cycle by today's standards — by offering cars that were not black, and even came in different styles to suit different tastes and pocketbooks. Heinz discovered it could make not just, say, mustard, but

"57 Varieties" of condiments in the same factory. Consumers began to have a wider range of choice, and they warmed quickly to their new options.

But things got more complicated on the management side. As more products were launched, organizations became increasingly bureaucratic and business functions more isolated from each other. This was de-skilling of a higher order: design, production, and marketing knowledge began to fractionate, and in some cases, to atrophy.

The real watershed came when offshore producers, finally recovered from the Second World War, began to penetrate U.S. markets. With the oil embargo of the early 1970s, small, fuel-efficient cars began looking highly attractive to people stalled in long gas lines. Companies like Honda, Toyota, and Volkswagen exploded into the North American market like a tsunami. The challenge to U.S. manufacturers was not to offer just trivial feature alternatives, but whole new designs. In a classic reversal, what was suddenly good for America was anything but good for General Motors. The auto industry didn't see these changes coming, and as a result lost enormous market share to offshore competitors.

Overnight, global competition turned mass markets into thousands of micro markets. Nike now makes hundreds of different styles of shoes. The Wall Street Journal coined the term sneakerization to describe a phenomenon affecting nearly every industry.

Competition is healthy, we'd been told from birth, because it breeds greater choice. But now competition was out of control and old-guard notions of brand allegiance evaporated like mist in the rising-sun onslaught from Japan, Southeast Asia, and Europe. Choice and quality ruled the day, and consumer enthusiasm for the resulting array of new product options forever undermined the foundations of yesterday's mass-market economy.

The relentless search for market niches drove a steep increase in new product introductions, which in turn required an exponential increase in design and process knowledge. There were just two problems. First, mass-production-oriented business processes had been "stove-piped" into noncommunicating bureaucratic business functions. Second, workers long told to "check your brain at the door," were ill-equipped for the dynamic changes about to wreak havoc on the corporation.

In short, command-and-control management didn't work so well anymore. Necessary knowledge no longer resided at the top. It was as if the organizational core had melted down, and companies that couldn't adjust fast enough — or that were culturally unwilling to shift gears — went belly up as a result.

Who Knows?

This sudden need for more, better, and better distributed knowledge spawned various attempts at a solution. Three are especially noteworthy.

  1. Concurrent engineering: What if separate functions — say design and manufacturing — talked to each other from the outset of a product cycle? This astoundingly obvious idea hadn't yet occurred to anyone because market hegemony and mass production had made it appear unnecessary. If you made only one product, and it had a long life cycle, there was no problem. However, as products proliferated and life cycles accelerated, the need to manage widely distributed knowledge became intense. While concurrent engineering was a step in the right direction, it assumed there was sufficient knowledge in top-down control functions to specify detailed commands to thousands of workers producing hundreds of different products. Big mistake.
  2. Artificial Intelligence: Announced with messianic fanfare in the 1980s, this new branch of computer science sought to automate expertise. If "scientific management" had ramped productivity through the division of physical labor, why not apply the same techniques to intellectual labor? However, if industrial automation is de-skilling, AI is akin to a frontal lobotomy. Instead of distributing knowledge, so-called expert systems made it dependent on complex and inflexible software. In most cases, these programs simply didn't work. Knowledge worthy of the name is highly dynamic. It requires deep understanding, not just rules and algorithms. While machines are lousy at this sort of thing, people are remarkably adaptive and intelligent. People learn. Real expertise is changing too fast today to lend itself to automation.
  3. Total Quality Management: TQM suggested the unthinkable to companies intent on automating knowledge: why not look to your employees? The basic idea was to empower the people who actually did the work. Knowledge resides within practice — a truth that AI forgot, to its fatal detriment. In companies that adopted some form of TQM, business practices began to resemble older notions of craft instead of the brain-numbing repetition of preordained procedures. People were encouraged to share what they knew with each other, with other departments and divisions, and with the company as a whole. This exchange became a rapidly expanding conversation — a conversation that would soon populate the corporate intranet.

Understanding, learning, exploration, curiosity, collaboration — qualities that had been bred out of workers by industrial management — were now being desperately elicited by the All-New, Culturally Revolutionized Organization. Many spouted the new religion, but secretly tried to hedge old bureaucratic bets. A handful walked the talk, but it was tough going. A central tenet of TQM was W. Edwards Deming's dictum: "Drive Out Fear" — a challenge that went to the heart of the corporation. Conversations among workers were finally seen as critical to the spread of valuable knowledge — "best practices" in the still-current jargon. Conversations are where intellectual capital gets generated. But business environments based on command-and-control are usually characterized by intimidation, coercion, and threats of reprisal. In contrast, genuine conversation flourishes only in an atmosphere of free and open exchange.

Enter the Internet

Our whirlwind historical tour has focused on manufacturing because that sector was first to experience these changes. Later, the same forces began to reshape service and information industries. The Internet not only arrived into the context of a newly globalized economy, it has been profoundly shaped by it. Companies installing intranets are seeking to capture and preserve critical knowledge. Individuals coming onto the Internet are seeking the same range of choice that was first offered by imported cars and stereo equipment.

However, most "e-commerce" plays today look a lot like General Motors circa 1969 — looking for that next lucrative mass market just when markets have shattered into a million mirror-shard constituencies, many asking for something altogether different from the mindless razzle-dazzle of the tube. Marketeers still drool at the prospect of the Net replicating the top-down broadcast model wherein glitzy "content" is developed at great cost in remote studios and jammed down a one-way pipe into millions of living rooms. TV with a buy button! Wowee!

Today, many large companies offer flashy bread-and-circus entertainments on the Web. These offerings have all the classic earmarks of the mass market come-on: lowest-common-denominator programming developed to package and deliver market segments to mass merchandisers. This is not what most people want, or they would have stuck with television, the Yellow Pages, and 800 numbers. And they don't have to accept it since the Internet came up with the concept of infinite channel-surfing.

The Net represents cheap natural resources (data), cheap transport (the pipe itself), and most important, cheap and efficient access to global know-how. The barriers to entry have fallen so low that a huge number of companies can now compete for a niche — an influx that echoes the entry of Asian and European competitors into U.S. markets. But this is more like an invasion from outer space: ten thousand saucers just landed and they're merely the advance wave.

Just as GM mistook the Hondas and VWs for a passing fad, most corporations today are totally misreading this invasion from Webspace. Their brand will save them. Right. Their advertising budget will save them. Uh-huh. More bandwidth will save them. Sure. Well,...something will save them. They're just not too sure what it is yet. But the clock is now ticking in Internet time. Maybe they should get a clue. And quick.

Border Crossings

To most large traditional companies, the notion that workers might actually know what they were doing was a huge insight. (Duh!) But it takes hard work to implement the changes required to elicit knowledge from employees. In most cases, that work is not only incomplete, it hasn't even begun. "Drive out fear"? Dream on.

Knowledge worth having comes from turned-on volitional attention, not from slavishly following someone else's orders. Innovation based on such knowledge is exciting, inflammatory, even "dangerous," because it tends to challenge fixed procedures and inflexible policies. While collaboration has been paid much lip service within corporations, few have attempted it beyond their own boundaries. Ironically, companies that remain "secure" within those boundaries will be cut off from the global marketplace with which they must engage in order to survive and prosper.

And this engagement must be fearless and far-reaching. Workers must become fully empowered and self-directed. Scary. Suppliers must become trusted allies in developing new products and business strategies. Scarier still. Markets must come to have faces and personalities in place of statistical profiles. Flat-out panic!

For many, the new landscape is barely recognizable, online or off. Where business is headed there are no roadmaps yet, and few comforting parallels with the past. The landscape has little to do with mass production, mass merchandising, mass markets, mass media, or mass culture.

Instead, the future business of businesses that have a future will be about subtle differences, not wholesale conformity; about diversity, not homogeneity; about breaking rules, not enforcing them; about pushing the envelope, not punching the clock; about invitation, not protection; about doing it first, not doing it "right"; about making it better, not making it perfect; about telling the truth, not spinning bigger lies; about turning people on, not "packaging" them; and perhaps above all, about building convivial communities and knowledge ecologies, not leveraging demographic sectors.

The New Workplace: Breaking the Silence

"Let us speak, though we show all our faults and weaknesses —
for it is a sign of strength to be weak, to know it, and out with it..."

Herman Melville

Just as traditional media conditioned the audience to be passive consumers — first of commercial messages, then of products — the traditional organization conditioned employees to be obedient executors of bureaucratically disseminated work orders. Both are forms of broadcast: the few dictating the behavior of the many. The broadcast mentality isn't dead by any means. It's just become suicidal.

In contrast, the Internet invites participation. It is genuinely empowering, well beyond the cliché that word has become. And corporate intranets invite participation in the same way. There are strong reciprocal parallels between the open-ended curiosity of the new marketplace and the knowledge requirements of the new organization. The market-oriented Internet and workforce-focused intranet each relies on the other in fundamental and highly complementary ways. Without strong market objectives and connections, there is no viable focus for a company's Internet presence; without a strong intranet, market objectives and connections remain wishful thinking.

The same technology that has opened up a new kind of conversation in the marketplace has done the same within the corporation, or has the potential to do so. But many businesses, especially large ones, still refuse to acknowledge these radical shifts affecting internal workforces and external markets. They don't want to relinquish hierarchic control. They don't want to give up the tremendous economies of scale they enjoyed under the old-school broadcast-advertising alliance. It's what they know. It's how they made their fortunes. However, trying to keep things in the old familiar business-as-usual rut denies the ability of markets to respond to and interact with companies directly — and this is what the Internet has brought to the party.

Why the denial? Could it be that companies are afraid the Internet and intranets will make people smarter? While no company would ever admit to it publicly, this is precisely what many fear. In the "good old days," consumers weren't expected to make suggestions or ask for new features. They were simply supposed to buy the product — any color they wanted as long as it was black. In the same way, workers weren't expected to offer insights or suggestions, just to do what they were told.

Networks greatly facilitate the sharing of relevant knowledge within a community joined by like interests. As a result, the lowest common denominator of informed awareness tends to be much higher online than it ever was in the context of broadcast media. Plus, this informed awareness tends to increase much faster. This accelerated learning effect obviously applies to intranets as well — it's where their primary value lies. But a lot can get in the way of this value before it has a chance to evolve and mature.

In 1995, Business Week ran an excellent cover story on intranets, just around the time the buzzword was emerging into general parlance. Several CIOs were quoted as saying they had so-and-so many thousand Web pages behind their firewalls. They were crowing about it. But my take was that this content didn't get created top-down by the organization. Instead, these pages sprang up overnight like a crop of magic mushrooms on a rich mother lode of corporate horseshit.

What does that mean, you ask? Well, look, when all this got started you had thousands of workers with easy access to free Web browsers and a smaller set of folks who had figured out how to set up Web servers whose only cost was download and tinkering time. These people soon figured out that HTML wasn't rocket science, and it was off to the races from there. Suddenly there was nothing to prevent the expression of their own ideas and creativity. Skunkworks wanted to build broader support for their projects, individuals wanted to be noticed for their technical savvy or penetrating wit or business insight.

But then the big-O Organization discovered what was going on, and often as not, brought all this self-motivated fever-pitch development to a grinding halt. Hey, way to go!

To be fair, there were a few high-level execs out there who truly understood the dynamics of how this stuff worked. And by dynamics, I mean more the cultural aspect of networking. For the technology, you could buy a book. Aside from this handful, though, most corporate managers were clueless in the extreme.

And, sadly, most still are. Too many have never spent any serious time online. Then, when they get charged with building a corporate intranet, the first thing they think about is reporting structures and where everybody will sit in some abstract org chart. But dictatorial directives — "All Web pages must be formally approved by the Department of Business Prevention" — throw cold water onto all that magic-mushroom enthusiasm.

The fact is, people at the bottommost tiers of the organization often have far more valuable knowledge than managers and corporate control freaks. If you kill off this enthusiasm, you can easily end up with a large, professional-looking, and very expensive intranet that nobody gives a damn about. The question companies should be asking themselves is: What if we built an intranet and nobody came?

Top management support needs to come in the form of funding, facilitation, and enough brains to get out of the way. It's gotta be more like rock and roll than strait-laced traditional business — and that puts the Suits right over the edge. It's just not possible, they argue, to run a business by letting everybody improvise.

But companies function that way whether anybody wants them to or not. Nobody really runs them; no one writes the score. Corporate management is still largely unaware of what's going on in the marketplace. But their workers know, because they're operating there already. What's going on is the Internet.

Today, market expectations are solidly welded to Net-speed performance. Your software product isn't available for downloading? You don't have secure transaction processing so I can buy it when I need it? Hey, I'm gone! And so is a big chunk of your market share. If your company feeds me a ration of facile hype instead of answering my questions, I'm looking for another supplier.

And the expectation of getting quick, straight answers applies across the board to information of every stripe. It applies to ideas — how to acquire them within the company and from the market, move them around, sort them, slice them, dice them, move them back out into the market as new products, get customer feedback — then iterate, getting better as you go. Make mistakes. Debug on the fly. It's fast, it's furious. It's fun! If you want a rock-and-roll company, which is more important, adhering to procedure or knowing how to dance?

The fervor that produced the first wild-oats crop of intranets surely didn't come from the CIOs who got quoted in Business Week. Workers have had it with repressive management that just gets in the way. Markets have had it with hyperbole-laden corporate rhetoric that's 99 percent hot air. The next huge opportunity for business is to bring workforce and market together. And companies smart enough to realize this start instigating a potent form of internal anarchy.

Unfortunately, such companies are rare exceptions. Most are hanging on for dear life to the one thing they think they can't live without: control. But they only think they're in control. Feeling their real abilities and contributions have gone unappreciated, many employees simply do what they feel like doing anyway, giving as little as possible to the company. They punch the clock and that's it. The relationship is adversarial as hell. If you look into it closely, though, the company has almost invariably set things up this way — by not trusting people to take the initiative, to be engaged, motivated, intelligent, creative, innovative. It's a long, sad story with roots that go back to the early industrial era.

Corporate intranets represent a prime opportunity to turn this scenario around, but only if there's genuine awareness of where the real challenges lie. Too much of intranet development is focused on whiz-bang technology and not nearly enough on the cultural revolution all this implies and in fact demands.

In healthy intranet environments, work gets coordinated via cooperation and negotiation among colleagues. But these things happen very fast, not in committee meetings. This is why employees need more power in organizations — not to lord it over others, but to make intelligent decisions on the fly and not see them overturned two days later by managers who don't know the territory. Without getting into the politics of it, the biggest complaint of the U.S. armed forces in Vietnam was that the war was being fought from Washington. Again without getting into the politics of it: the U.S. lost. This is a big clue as to how many intranet initiatives are playing out. Top-down command-and-control management has become dysfunctional and counterproductive.

Imposed infrastructures hinder more than help. Most so-called empowerment initiatives are embarrassingly paternalistic, to the point of backfiring entirely. Real authority is based on respect for knowledge and the two are inherently intertwined. Also, both grow bottom-up. When arbitrary "management" takes over what was initially a handcrafted intranet, the individuals who championed and created it often feel betrayed and disenfranchised. You see the same thing in what happened to craft and the individual voice during the course of the Industrial Revolution. We're making some very old mistakes here.

Take another example much closer to the present. The autonomous PC challenged the hegemony of mainframe computer systems and enabled the development of quick solutions that could end-run the infamous MIS-bottleneck — the fact that it could take months for computer applications to be created and executed to deliver needed information. Then IT management discovered the LAN, which delivered another layer of utility. However, instead of leveraging this new resource for the benefit of "users" — even that word is an artifact of the mentality — the IT department largely used the LAN to reestablish control over information access and work environments.

Now, many companies are doing the same thing again with the intranet. You get this rule-book mindset — the corporation's common look and feel, logo placement, legal number of words on each Web page. Whatever. It's all so cramped and constipated and uninviting. Dead. The people who actually built the intranet — created the content that makes it valuable — bail out, looking for another, more open system. And today that's easy to find.

Remember the context for all this. Twenty years ago, or even five, only corporations could provide the kind of resources needed to process even modest volumes of information. The cost of such systems was a significant barrier to entry for new businesses that might become competitors. But today individuals have this kind of power in their rec rooms. And they can get all the Internet they can eat for a few bucks a month. If the company doesn't come through with the kind of information and delivery that turns them on — provides learning, advances careers, and nurtures the unbridled joy of creation — well, hey, they'll just do it elsewhere. Maybe in the garage.

This sort of thing has already been happening for a while now, of course, but there's more on the way, and not just from the usually suspected quarters. To understand what's really happening on the Internet, you have to get down beneath the commercial hype and hoopla, which — though it gets 90 percent of the press — is actually a late arrival. From the beginning, something very different has been brewing online. It has to do with living, with livelihood, with craft, connection, and community. This isn't some form of smarmy New Age mysticism, either. It's tough and gritty and it's just beginning to find its voice, its own direction. But it's also difficult to describe; as the song says, "It's like trying to tell a stranger about rock and roll." And it's next to impossible to understand unless you've experienced it for yourself. You have to live in the Net for a while.

At this level, things are often radically other than they appear. A new kind of logic is emerging, or needs to. I call it gonzo business management — paradox become paradigm. We're not in Kansas anymore, Toto, and we might as well get used to it. There's a huge opportunity here for individuals to keep their day jobs but at the same time to indulge their natural human bent for self-expression.

Companies that try to prevent this sort of creativity within their firewalls need to have their collective heads examined. Conversely, companies that foster and encourage it will win big. The best software, design, music, graphics, writing — elegant, artistic, fantastically interesting and valuable content — are coming out of places where people feel their creativity is valued. Places where inspiration is paramount and posturing means nothing.

Great intranets come from corporate basements, not from boardrooms. How do you know where the next big thing is going to come from? You need great radar today, and that means a wide-awake workforce that's constantly tinkering, exploring, and figuring out new ways to have fun.

The long history of distrust between workers and management didn't start with Karl Marx or the AFL-CIO. It's based more on fallout from the ideas of people like Frederick Taylor and Henry Ford, ideas like "scientific management" and Theory X. Underlying these questionable principles that have done so much to shape the assumptions of business-as-usual is the premise that workers are lazy, unwilling, even stupid. Today, this premise translates into the near-certainty that employees are pilfering company time, collecting a paycheck while hanging out on the Web all day. They probably are. But that's a symptom, not a cause.

The people who built the first intranets put in ridiculously long days. They worked like soldiers rebuilding a bridge. You had to be there to believe it. But many now managing Internet or intranet projects were not there and they don't believe it. It all goes back to fear of losing control. Whatever the motive, the mentality has to go. Right now these fear-driven corporations are spending millions on market research, the whole point of which is to find out who their customers are. They don't know anymore. They've barricaded themselves in their executive suites, and now they've erected firewalls on top of that.

Sure, data security is necessary and needs to be done well. However, many corporations are desperate for firewalls because they don't want the market to see they have nothing worth stealing inside them. That's not security, it's paranoia. You can't identify best practices without sticking your neck out — but if you don't, you risk premature death. You can't invite customers to contribute design ideas by holding them at bay.

And unless your industry is very "mature" — which really means ready for the bone yard — your market isn't wearing pinstripe suits anymore, either. Many companies are currently doing market planning today using straw-man models of the customer that constitute a bad pastiche of Eisenhower-era sitcom outtakes and those throwback Human Resources manuals that haven't been edited in thirty years. Was anybody ever this straight or this stupid? Are they now? If not, what does this say about current approaches to online marketing? In many cases, your workers are your market. Come out of the bunker once in a while, see what they're up to — it could be your future.

But for that to happen, you've to get beyond the firewall. The Internet/intranet dichotomy reinforces the "not invented here," syndrome that has damaged so many companies. Corporations have long understood that they have to tear down the internal walls that prevent necessary cross-functional communication. Now they have to tear down their external walls as well. The survivors will be left standing naked — the stuff of nightmares for many companies. But they'll be left standing naked in the middle of a thriving marketplace. For businesses capable of grasping the ramifications, this is an enormously promising paradox.

In a networked market, the best way for a company to "advertise" will be to provide a public window on its intranet. Instead of putting up slick images of what they'd like people to believe, corporations will open up so people can see what's really going on.

Sometime soon, companies will have to open up significant portions of their intranets — while still protecting their few genuine secrets — in order to create relationships with their markets rather than barriers against them. Otherwise, they're saying in effect: "We know everything we need to know. Why should we look beyond our own borders?" That's just plain wrong, and everybody knows it — especially your workers and your customers.

Companies that are actually communicating with online markets have flung the doors wide open. They're constantly searching for solid information they can share with customers and prospects via Web and FTP sites, e-mail lists, phone calls, whatever it takes. They're not half as concerned with protecting their data as with how much information they can give away. That's how they stay in touch, stay competitive, keep market attention from drifting to competitors. Such companies are creating a new kind of corporate identity, based not on the repetitive advertising needed to create "brand awareness," but on substantive, personalized communications.

The question is whether, as a company, you can afford to have more than an advertising-jingle persona. Can you put yourself out there: say what you think in your own voice, present who you really are, show what you really care about? Do you have any genuine passion to share? Can you deal with such honesty? Such exposure? Human beings are often magnificent in this regard, while companies, frankly, tend to suck. For most large corporations, even considering these questions — and they're being forced to do so by both Internet and intranet — is about as exciting as the offer of an experimental brain transplant.

But the future looks dismal only to companies that are spooked by the prospect of coming in out of the cold. Those at highest risk aren't wonderful places to be working in at any level today. Their future could be very bright if they'd just decide to stop being prisons with nasty wardens. If they choose not to stop, I don't have much pity. Companies that are harming themselves out of ignorance can, with a little humility and a lot of hard work, begin to learn and change. I've seen it happen, and it's an impressive thing. On the other hand, companies that are harming the people who work for them out of cowardice, greed, and willful stupidity richly deserve whatever fate may have in store.

Giant companies tend to look only over the tops of the trees at other giants they consider worthy competitors. Few bother to look down at their feet. If they did, many would see their foundations being nibbled away by competitors many times smaller, yet fiercely committed to do battle for even a tiny slice of this new territory. Some little garage operation can only take away, say, .001 percent of market share from one of these monster companies. However, a hundred thousand garage operations can take it all — and given the new business dynamics the Internet brings to bear, this can happen overnight. The Net will cause radical discontinuities, catastrophic breaks in the already crumbling façade of business-as-usual.

Companies currently have a lot of motivation to get serious. And to get really serious, they first have to get a sense of humor and relax — yet another pretzel-logic paradox. They need to relax to break the obsessive-compulsive control habit. They need to understand that employees already know how to do the work far better than the company could ever hope to dictate. Corporate intranets could unleash the potential energy of the corporation, but to nourish and grow that potential, companies have to relinquish their addiction to management. Zen master Suzuki Roshi once said, "To control your cow, give it a bigger pasture."

At some point you've got to break down and trust people both inside and outside "your" organization — and the Web is responsible for those quotation marks. It is radically blurring the boundaries of what's inside and outside, yours and theirs. The only way companies can sound authentic to new online markets is to empower employees who actually have the knowledge to disseminate it on their behalf. And from here on out, that's always going to mean a two-way street between workplace and marketplace.

The New Marketplace: Word Gets Around

In the late eighteenth century, the British philosopher Jeremy Bentham imagined a little nightmare he called a "panopticon" — a prison in which the inmates could be seen at all times, but couldn't see their jailers. A few hundred years later, mass media inverted this scenario. The imprisoning TV eye now sees nothing, yet we all watch it for clues to our cultural identity. But what would happen if each of these isolated prison cells were somehow wired to all the rest so the inmates could observe their overseers? Not only see them, but also speculate about their motives, and compare notes on their behavior and intentions? It's already happened. That's what the Internet does. Suddenly the overseer is like an insect mounted on a pin for all to view.

While corporations are still only marginally aware of what's being said about them online, all but the totally out-of-it are uncomfortably aware these conversations are taking place, and that the control they had in the days of broadcast has evaporated. We're not just watching the ads these days, we're publicly deconstructing them. In this context, intranets look like salvation to many companies, their protective firewalls a form of corporate encryption designed to insulate against a scary new kind of market: unpredictable, unmanageable, unwilling to be manipulated.

At one point the Cluetrain Manifesto says: "Markets do not want to talk to flacks and hucksters. They want to participate in the conversations going on behind the corporate firewall. De-cloaking, getting personal: We are those markets. We want to talk to you."

De-cloaking even more: I wrote that last bit. Personally. The Internet has radically changed the nature of the marketplace. I believe this. But how do I presume to know it? Certainly not through market-research reports, most of which aren't worth the paper they're written on. I know it because the Internet has changed me and the thousands of people I talk to every week. Maybe the best way to explain this is to tell my own story — talk about who I am and how I got here. Am I representative of the online market? The point is that there is no "online market" in some general abstract sense. More than any market that's ever existed, the Internet is a collection of unique individuals. I'm one of them.

I bought my first computer in 1981. It had a 300-baud modem that I used to connect to The Source, the first commercial online service. For those who may not know, baud is a technical term meaning "extremely slow." Nonetheless, I used this machine to talk to people I'd never met. We'd hook up and say things like: "Hey, who are you? What's happening over there? And by the way, where is over there?" The personal computer seemed to me the all-purpose machine. You could draw with it, write on it, save thoughts and recall them later, recombine them — you could even make music. I was a carpenter and a cabinetmaker and into tools in a big way. Here was a machine that communicated with others of its type, and behind each one was another person, another mind jamming, improvising, conveying ideas, feelings, and experiences I'd never before had a way to tap into. I'd never encountered a tool this powerful.

Through a weird combination of fortuitous accidents, I ended up in Tokyo several years later working in an artificial intelligence project for the Japanese government. What the project needed — and what I had to offer — was a fairly good grasp of the English language. What I lacked was any formal training in computer science. Nothing had prepared me for the stratospheric high-tech world I suddenly found myself immersed in. I knew next to nothing about machine intelligence, but I was fascinated by its core concept of "knowledge engineering." The challenge was to model how people understand things, represent ideas, and communicate them to others. In this case, the "other" was a computer. I could relate to the enormity of the problem. I was groping around in the dark myself, struggling with new concepts, and learning as I went. I was flying by the seat of my pants.

One day, I met with a researcher in a coffee shop. Language was a problem, but he spoke more English than I did Japanese. I had just been to the bookstore and was lugging a stack of books on highly advanced computer-science topics. It was all Greek to me, but I figured something might rub off. Suddenly the guy asks me, "Who gives you permission to read those books?"

I was stunned. Bowled over. Did his puzzlement reflect some sort of cultural difference? I didn't think so. It struck me that this fellow was just being more honest and direct than an American might be. He was articulating what many people in today's world seem to assume: that official authorization is required to learn new things. I thought about this deeply, and I'm thinking about it still.

Who gives us permission to explore our world? The question implies that the world in fact belongs to someone else. Who gives us permission to communicate what we've experienced, what we believe, what we've discovered of that world for ourselves? The question betokens a history of voice suppressed, of whole cultures that have come to believe only power is sanctioned to speak. Because the ability to speak does involve power. It entails ownership and the control conferred by ownership. As the saying has it: "Money talks, bullshit walks."

Right then and there, in that chance encounter in some random Tokyo coffee shop, I gave myself blanket permission: to be curious, to learn, to speak, to write. But it's a long road from permission to practice, and there's plenty of negative reinforcement in between. Freedom of expression may be called out loftily in the U.S. Constitution, but even after two centuries of democracy, it's still a far cry from second nature.

Communication is a powerful tool. And like any other powerful tool, it has been pressed into the service of business-as-usual. A few years after my stint in Japan, I ended up back in the United States, hired by an AI software outfit to be their director of corporate communications. Cool, I thought. That sounded important. I had no idea what it meant. Only later did I discover I'd become their PR guy. Bummer.

I was pretty naive back then, but I quickly figured out that public relations was perceived by the press — the people I was supposed to be talking to — as little more than thinly disguised hucksterism. I tried playing the high-tech huckster role precisely once and came away from the experience feeling dirty, phony. I couldn't bring myself to do it again, which was a big problem. It was my job. And I needed the money. Stop me if any of this sounds familiar.

The "key messages" of any AI software company back then involved head-bangingly abstruse concepts like "heuristics," "backward chaining," and "nonmonotonic logic." Very deep. And very boring. I barely understood this jargon myself. How was I supposed to get on the phone with some total stranger and enthuse about The Product? The truth was, I didn't give a damn about the product. What I cared about was knowledge, how people acquired and used it, how organizations suddenly seemed to need a lot more of it, and why. What I cared about was how technology applied — or didn't — to the world of business and the actual people who worked there.

So instead of pitching the product, I started talking to journalists about stuff like that. I figured I'd just pretend to be working until I got fired for goofing off. But something amazing happened. As soon as I stopped strategizing how to "get ink" for the company that was paying my salary, as soon as I stopped seeing journalists as a source of free advertising for my employer, I started having genuine conversations with genuinely interesting people.

I'd call up editors and reporters without a thought in my head — no agenda, no objective — and we'd talk. We talked about manufacturing and how it evolved, about shop rats and managers, command and control. We talked about language and literature, about literacy. We talked about software too of course — what it could and couldn't do. We talked about the foibles of the industry itself, laughed about empty buzzwords and pompous posturing, swapped war stories about trade shows and writing on deadline. We talked about our own work. But these conversations weren't work. They were interesting and engaging. They were exciting. They were fun. I couldn't wait to get back to work on Monday morning.

Then something even more amazing happened. The company started "getting ink." Lots of it. And not in the lowly trade rags it had been used to, but in places like The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal and Business Week. One day the CEO called the VP of Marketing into my office.

"What has Chris been doing for you lately?" the CEO asked him.

"I'm glad you brought that up," said the marketing veep. "In the whole time he's been here, he hasn't done a single thing I've asked him to."

"Well..." said the CEO looking down at his shoes — here it comes, I thought, this is what it feels like to get sacked — "whatever it is he's doing, leave him alone. From now on, he reports to me."

That's how I discovered PR doesn't work and that markets are conversations.

That's also how I started ghostwriting for the CEO. One afternoon I was banging out an article, and I wrote a paragraph that stopped me cold. It stopped me because something new and very different had just showed up on the screen: my own voice. It's hard to explain, but the paragraph I'd just written resonated with something that had been sleeping all my life, something potent, something deep. I realized I could say things I cared about, and I could say them in a way no one else could. I stopped ghosting and started writing my own stuff.

But it was hard to write the sort of thing that gave me that same feeling. Where could I publish it? I would try to sneak some of myself into the articles I wrote for journals and magazines, but I usually had to disguise what I really wanted to say.

In 1995, I ended up in IBM's Internet division. A ranking PR guy from corporate headquarters ran into me one day and said he'd heard I had a lot of contacts in the financial press. He suggested we get together for lunch and talk about it. I took this as a good sign, maybe an opening to do what I liked best. But when we met several weeks later he said something like, "All those journalists you know? Never talk to them again."

He said I should refer all such conversations to him instead. That way, he said, the company's messaging would be consistent. Or words to that effect. But I knew they wouldn't be real conversations — they would be "key message" pitches, and I wasn't about to subject people I knew and liked to that sort of targeting. I kept my contacts to myself.

I was devastated. It was bad enough that I'd been explicitly forbidden to speak with journalists, many of whom had become good friends, but where was I going to write? If I published anything, I'd get busted for not asking permission — there was that word again — and if I wrote sleazy PR for IBM, I'd have to kill myself to blot out the karmic stain.

And then it came to me: I could write on the World Wide Web! At that juncture, IBM's Internet division was so clueless I figured most of the top brass had only vaguely heard of it. One senior guy thought Yahoo was a kind of browser — no lie — and this was after the Yahoo IPO had made headlines in every major newspaper worldwide. Oh well, at least their PR was consistent.

I liked this idea. A lot. I'd be invisible on the Web, outside the control of any company. I'd be free at last to speak in my own voice without begging anyone's permission. I decided to create a Web-cum-e-mail newsletter. I wanted a catchy title, so I called it Entropy Gradient Reversals, EGR for short. In the beginning, I thought it would be a perfect vehicle to deliver my profound pundit-grade insights about the Internet and show everyone how smart I was. That didn't last long. I ended the very first issue like this:

[_] From time to time we offer to share our list of subscribers with door-to-door aromatherapy salespersons and ritual ax-murderers. If you would prefer that your data not be used in this way, please check the box.

Whoa! What a response that brought! Everyone was laughing. People subscribed in droves. I was ecstatic. I wondered whether IBM would have given me permission to publish such material. Probably not — on the off-chance of offending the aromatherapy and ritual ax-murderer market segments.

I started wondering what other sorts of noncorporate things I could write. What if I broke all the rules? You know, the unwritten rules everyone learns by telepathy at birth: be pleasant, be brief, don't speak down to your reader, don't use big words, don't use obscenity, don't make yourself the center of attention. First and foremost, do that all-important market research. Find out what your audience wants to hear about. Ask their permission.

Wait a second...hadn't I been through all this? I had, and I'd had enough. I decided to go against the grain with a vengeance. I told readers they were clueless hosers. I interviewed an imaginary horse — at exhausting length. I used vocabulary so obscure that people needed unabridged dictionaries to figure out what I was saying. I developed an alter-ego named RageBoy®, a seriously maladjusted mental case and towering egomaniac with an advanced case of Tourette's syndrome. And my readers loved it.

Well...the ones who stayed loved it. Many went screaming for the nearest exit. RageBoy at full throttle is not everyone's cup of tea, to be sure. But the ones who stayed are an interesting lot. Some are programmers, teachers, artists, writers, full-time parents. Others have titles like Director of Public Relations, VP Marketing, Chief Information Officer, CEO. And the companies they come from read like the Fortune 500 list. The readership is not, as you might suspect, drawn from some dangerously misanthropic idiot fringe. The audience is regular people, mostly business people. And as the THX ads say: the audience is listening.

Forget my gonzo experimentation with RageBoy. That's just one microscopic example of what's happening online. The real point is that the Internet has made it possible for genuine human voices to be heard again, however different they may be from the cautious, insipid pabulum of mainstream broadcast media. Why has the Internet grown so rapidly? Why did it catch so many businesses off guard? The audience is listening because people are attracted to precisely the difference the Net provides: the sound of human beings talking with one another as human beings — the sound of a million conversations whose primary purpose, for once, is not to sell us something.

How do these conversations get started? How do people with common interests find each other? How does anyone find anything online? The simple answer is the theme of this book: word gets around. And on the Net, word gets around fast.

For every entry in the encyclopedia, there is now a Web site. For any idea you can imagine — and some you can't — there are thousands of articles and images electronically swirling around the globe. But that's not the real story. That's not the big news. The word that's going around, the word that's finally getting out, is something much larger, far more fundamental. The word that's passing like a spark from keyboard to screen, from heart to mind, is the permission we're giving ourselves and each other: to be human and to speak as humans.

Consciously or not, millions of us are using the Internet to pass along this unconditional permission to millions of others. When enough people do that, something viral happens. It's not hypothetical, it's happening — when we say what we think, when we feel what we say, when we listen for the music of authentic presence. We are constantly searching each other out, linking, talking, shaking things up. Consciously or not, by the very nature of the permission we give each other, we are working to bring down business-as-usual.

News of this ever-spreading word is what you're reading here. And it's a little schizophrenic, I have to admit. In one sense, the news is good. It's great! It's the joyous noise of people reveling in a newfound freedom, laughing, jeering, cheering, irrepressible.

From another perspective, the news is not good at all. Everybody's miserable. Everybody's had about enough. People are sick to death of being valued only as potential buyers, as monetary grist for some modern-day satanic mill. They're sick of working for organizations that treat them as if they didn't exist, then attempt to sell them the very stuff they themselves produced. Why is a medium that holds such promise — to connect, to inspire, to awaken, to enlist, to change — being used by companies as a conduit for the kind of tired lies that have characterized fifty years of television? Business has made a ventriloquist's trick of the humanity we take for granted. The sham is ludicrous. The corporation pretends to speak, but its voice is that of a third-rate actor in a fourth-rate play, uttering lines no one believes in a manner no one respects.

Oh well. That's OK. We'll get by. We've got each other.

I have to laugh as I write that. The Internet audience is a strange crew, to be sure. But we're not talking about some Woodstock lovefest here. We don't all need to drop acid and get naked. We don't need to pledge our undying troth to each other, or to the Revolution, or to the bloody Cluetrain Manifesto for that matter. And neither does business.

All we need to do is what most of us who've discovered this medium are already doing: using it to connect with each other, not as representatives of corporations or market segments, but simply as who we are.

From hopelessly romantic meditations on favorite cats, to screeds so funny you'll blow coffee out your nose, to collective code for alternative operating systems: we're all expressing ourselves in a new way online — a way that was never possible before, never before permitted. And make no mistake, speech once freed is a powerful drug. Get used to it; it ain't going back in the box. What does this mean for electronic commerce? Take a wild guess. We're not those neatly predictable consumers business remembers from yesterday. We got a taste of something else, and we like it. We'll make it ourselves, and defend it with a ferocity that might surprise most businesses. If you're a business, believe us: it's a surprise you'd just as soon skip. We're in the market for lots of things, but the market we see ourselves in is more like that ancient marketplace. Tell us some good stories and capture our interest. Don't talk to us as if you've forgotten how to speak. Don't make us feel small. Remind us to be larger. Get a little of that human touch.

people of earth . . .

"Your choice is simple. Join us and live in peace or pursue your present course and face obliteration. We shall be waiting for your answer. The decision rests with you."

The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951)

To find anything that isn't overtly complicit with the Great Technology Sitcom, you have to dig down to the underbelly of the Web. You have to get past the sites with commercial pretensions that are slicing and dicing you, counting the legs and dividing by four, bringing in the sheep. You are being incorporated into their demographic surveys. And, predictably, the lowest common denominator is getting all the juice. You are being packaged for advertisers by some of the hippest hucksters on the planet.

Dig deeper. Down to the sites that never entertained the hope of Buck One. They owe nobody anything. Not advertisers, not VC producers, not you. Put your ear to those tracks and listen to what's coming like a freight train. What you'll hear is the sound of passion unhinged, people who have had it up to here with white-bread culture, hooking up to form the biggest goddam garage band the world has ever seen.

What are these underbelly sites about? What's a rock concert about? How about creation, exploring a visceral and shared collective memory we've been brainwashed into believing never existed?

Conspiracy theory, my ass. Schools and teachers, the motor vehicle bureau, the IRS, the military, the line at the bank, the television set, the newspapers at the checkout stand, the news on your radio, the billboards along the highway, and now a hundred thousand cold-comfort Web sites. All are tuned to your brain at the deepest level and you have lined up for the coolest, latest-model implant. The carrier wave has been tuned at huge cost to deliver a single message: you are not free, you desire nothing but the products we produce, you have no world but the world we give you.

If you're OK with this, then eat it up. There's a bulimic's dream-feast of killer kontent on the way. But if it already makes you want to puke, get angry. Write it, code it, paint it, play it — rattle the cage however you can. Stay hungry. Stay free. And believe it: win, lose, or draw, we're here to stay. Armed only with imagination, we're gonna rip the fucking lid off.

There's your market.


OK, the scary part is over now. You can come out. It's safe.

In fact, the news gets better from here on out. And the first bit of news is that this isn't about us and them. It's about us. Them don't exist. Not really. Corporations are legal fictions, willing suspensions of disbelief. Pry the roof off any company and what do you find inside? The Cracker Jack prize is ourselves, just ordinary people. We come in all flavors: funny, cantankerous, neurotic, compassionate, avaricious, generous, scheming, lackadaisical, brilliant, and a million other things. It's true that the higher up the food chain you go, the more likely you are to encounter the arrogant and self-deluded, but even top management types are mostly harmless when you get to know them. Given lots of love, some even make good pets.

Inside companies, outside companies, there are only people. All of us work for organizations of some sort, or we're peddling something. All of us pay the mortgage or the rent. We all buy shoes and books and food and time online, plus the occasional Beanie Baby for the kid. More important, all of us are finding our voices once again. Learning how to talk to one another. Slowly recovering from a near-fatal brush with zombification after watching Night of the Living Sponsor reruns all our lives.

Inside, outside, there's a conversation going on today that wasn't happening at all five years ago and hasn't been very much in evidence since the Industrial Revolution began. Now, spanning the planet via Internet and World Wide Web, this conversation is so vast, so multifaceted, that trying to figure what it's about is futile. It's about a billion years of pent-up hopes and fears and dreams coded in serpentine double helixes, the collective flashback déjà vu of our strange perplexing species. Something ancient, elemental, sacred, something very very funny that's broken loose in the pipes and wires of the twenty-first century.

There are millions of threads in this conversation, but at the beginning and end of each one is a human being. That this world is digital or electronic is not the point. What matters most is that it exists in narrative space. The story has come unbound. The world of commerce became precipitously permeable while it wasn't looking and sprang a leak from a quarter least expected. The dangers of democracy pale before the danger of uncontained life. Life with the wraps off. Life run wild.

Why do companies find this prospect terrifying? How, for instance, does the above description differ from the basic operation of a virgin forest? When he said, "in wildness is the preservation of the world," I bet Thoreau wasn't just thinking about old-growth trees. He also wrote a little ditty called On Civil Disobedience. There is a connection.

But don't look at us. For the defenseless position all you companies now find yourselves in, you can thank the creators of the Internet, the U.S. Department of Defense. What a paradox. What a total hoot!

And you might as well hoot as cry about it. It's not the end of the world. It's the beginning of a new one. What's emerging is our story in the most fundamental sense, the human mythos weaving a vision of whatever it wants to become. There is no known deterrent. Take a deep breath, baby. Roll with it.

While this may sound spooky and mystical and terribly uncorporate, it isn't meant to put you Fortune 500 types off. When you get right down to it, human beings are spooky and mystical and terribly uncorporate, and corporations — if you'd only let yourselves admit it — consist entirely of human beings. Sort of neat how that works out. So the bottom line is: you can play in the Internet headspace as well as anyone.

There are just three conditions: 1) you have to let your people play for you, since there's really nobody else at home; 2) you have to play, not something more serious and goal-oriented; and 3) related to the previous, you have to have at least some tenuous notion of what "headspace" might mean. It's not in the dictionary. But you can ask around. Get the general hang of the thing. If you figure it out, we'll think you're cool and consume mass quantities of all your wonderful products.

See how easy life can be when you loosen up a little?

You laugh, we laugh with you.

Either way, we live.

The Cluetrain Manifesto: The End of Business as Usual
Copyright © 1999, 2001 Levine, Locke, Searls & Weinberger.
All rights reserved.

NEXT: Chapter 2: The Longing
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